10th Anniversary of the Repeal of the Federal Time Tax
December 8, 2005, was the anniversary of the abolition of a federal tax, yet there was almost no notice taken by the communications media. It was a federal tax on driving time. On December 8, 1995, the National Maximum Speed Limit law was repealed.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
After the OPEC oil embargo, Congress in 1974 enacted a national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Traffic laws are Constitutionally in the domain of the states, but the federal government goes around the 10th Amendment by dangling money in front of state politicians. State officials extend their arms to get the money, but the federal government pulls it back and chuckles, you have to set my rules if you want the loot. With mixed emotions (cowardice and greed), legislators then nod their heads, and the federal government hands over the money, which was taken from the state residents in the first place. That’s how we got a national speed limit of 55.
At first, the excuse for the 55 limit was to economize on oil. Then when the price controls ended, the gasoline lines went away, and the embargo was lifted, a second excuse was that the lower speed limit saved lives. However, studies have shown that few lives were saved, partly because many drivers went faster than 55 anyway. Like with the prohibition of alcohol, there was massive non-compliance by the driving public, even at the risk of traffic citations. When highway traffic is sparse, there is hardly any extra safety going 65 miles per hour on a highway designed to accommodate that speed in the first place.
A speed limit intended to reduce oil consumption rather than for safety amounts to a tax on drivers’s time. Each driver on a highway faces a decision on driving speed. If he drives faster, he uses more gasoline per mile or kilometer and the damage caused by a collision is greater, but he saves on time, and what is time but life? We all have a limited time on earth, and the less time taken by driving, the more time we have for things we would rather do.
What is special about consuming gasoline and oil in contrast to other goods? There is nothing particularly evil about consuming gasoline, and no good economic reason to penalize people from consuming it rather than something else.
The National Motorists Association led the campaign to repeal the 55 limit. In 1987, Congress allowed the states to raise Interstate highway speeds to 65 miles per hour. I remember being in Virginia at that time, and I felt like I was a slave, forced to creep along at 55 on the freeway to Washington DC, when there was no safety problem driving faster. When the speed limit was first raised to 65, I felt wonderfully liberated. O Freedom! Free at last from the federal time tax!
Some critics predicted that there would be a huge increase in traffic deaths, but this did not happen. In fact, fatality rates decreased. Finally, in 1995, the NMSL was entirely repealed. Many states expanded the 65 limit to other highways, and some even set limits of 70 and 75 miles per hour.
On May 31, 1999, the Cato Institute published Policy Analysis 346 by Stephen Moore on the 55-MPH speed limit, entitled Speed Doesn’t Kill. . It’s conclusion: “But almost all measures of highway safety show improvement, not more deaths and injuries, since 1995.” Moreover, “Americans have saved some 200 million man-hours in terms of less time spent on the road. The net economic benefit of raising the speed limit has been between $2 and $3 billion a year.”
I agree with the NMA's Position On Speed Limits: “Speed limits should be based on sound traffic engineering principles that give full consideration to the driving patterns of responsible motorists. With extremely rare exceptions, this should result in speed limits set at the 85th to 90th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic. If separate speed limits are set for different classes of vehicles or different time periods, the speed limits for those classes of vehicles or time periods shall also be set at the 85th or 90th percentile speed of those classes of vehicles or those identified time periods. In those instances where 85th percentile speeds exceed 75 mph, serious consideration should be given to eliminating enumerated speed limits and posting advisory speed limits in those locations with design limitations that require slower speeds.”
Speed limits should be prima facie: “if the accused motorist's actions can be proven to be safe, reasonable and prudent for the prevailing conditions, the charge of speeding shall be dismissed by the court of jurisdiction” (from the NMLA model speed laws).
There should be very high penalties for driving while intoxicated, for reckless driving, and for driving an unsafe vehicle. Take away their driving rights, fine them huge amounts, even put them in a cage in a public park dressed in zebra suits for children to mock and ridicule. Replace the driving license with a safety certificate. Educate people to drive safely, and require periodic tests to renew a safety certificate. Education combined with stiff penalties for recklessness will minimize traffic fatalities and injuries.
We don’t need arbitrary speed limits. Too often state and local governments set low speed limits for revenue, not for safety. Some governments even deliberately set traps, with hidden or missing signs, to ensnare unknowing drivers into paying large penalties. The struggle against the traffic taxes continues on a state and local level, but at least we are free of the unconstitutional federal time tax. We should celebrate the December 8 anniversary as one of the rare occasions when a usurpation of federal power was repealed.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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