Repealing the 55 MPH Speed Limit

In 1990, I first learned of the National Motorists Association (NMA) when I got a speeding ticket in Texas. I fought the ticket and was found guilty. I was naive in my belief that if I wasn't guilty of the charges, I could go before the judge and explain that there was a misunderstanding and charges would be dropped.

I was amazed at how I had been treated in the court system. When I appealed the guilty verdict, it seemed to affect the people representing the system. Prior to the appeal the DA was pleasant and somewhat paternalistic. At the request of the judge, he explained to me the procedure and escorted me to the law library. There he advised me to just pay for the ticket and go my way. However, when the trial time came the DA went for the throat – mine! Well, I lost the appeal as well, and the fine went from $10 to $144 – but during that time, I learned what was happening to motorists all over these United States.

During my research to find how to change a system that is grossly unfair, I came across a book titled "How to Beat the Radar Rap" and through the publisher I was put in touch with Jim Baxter, President of NMA. And it was through this heroic organization that I found out that there is a method to setting speed limits and placing stop signs. About this same time I met a traffic engineer who gave me a book entitled, "National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices" (NCUTCD). This is where I first heard the term "the 85th percentile" it means that traffic engineers believe the speed limits should be set at 85% of the speed adopted by free flowing traffic. But, he told me his hands were tied – all decisions were political.

Many phone calls went back and forth to Mr. Baxter and soon he asked me to be the Texas State Chapter Coordinator. That seemed like too much responsibility but I agreed to be an area coordinator. But within a few months I was Texas State Chapter Coordinator with six area coordinators under me. I lived 130 miles from Austin and for two years, I burned up a lot of rubber. We were instrumental in having several laws passed, e.g., keeping the 70 mph's speed limit, temporarily suspended, in effect, making it easy for Texas to raise its speed limit with the repeal of National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL). And we helped to defeat a law that would allow a judge to be fired if he didn't collect enough traffic-fine revenue.

Every year, NMA would have a national coordinators meeting, and my colleagues urged that I be sent to Washington to bring about the repeal of the NMSL. But NMA had already retained a lobbyist in DC and he was supposed to be good. He did get a modification of the NMSL, a raise in speed limits to 65 mph in rural areas. But the hoped-for repeal of NMSL did not happen. Then in August 1994, Jim Baxter asked me if I move to Washington, D.C., and lobby for the repeal. I told Mr. Baxter: Yes, although repealing a law "cast in concrete" for 23 years seemed like an impossible dream.

On a trip back from the NMA national headquarters in Wisconsin, I drove through Washington, D.C., and met with the NMA lobbyist, who told me "you are not needed on this issue." He went on to tell me, "you cannot use my office, you cannot receive phone calls or mail, you cannot store anything." He leaned forward and said "you cannot even use the bathroom." I replied, "I guess I will have to find a place on the Hill." To which he said. "You won't be able to afford it."

Leaving the restaurant and my new colleague, I walked around the block and stopped to talk with a woman working in her front yard. She said she was renovating an apartment, but that it wouldn't be ready until December. I was delighted, as I would not be moving to the District until then, and I felt that an apartment on Capitol Hill would be ideal for office and living. I knew I would need to be close to the House and Senate offices.

I drove home and packed up my belonging, and loaded them into a 24' Ryder truck. I got behind the wheel of a truck for the first time and drove alone, except for my dog and cat, to Washington. When I arrived, I was again awed by history of the area and by the importance of the Members of Congress. I felt small and insignificant by comparison.

Yet, I believed so strongly that the NMSL was a bad law, that I felt compelled to change it.

Fundamental to good law in America is the idea that the behavior of most people is reasonable. Laws are written to single out the unreasonable behavior of a minority.

Speed laws are based on the same ideas. Most people did not observe this law. It made criminals out of most motorists, leaving us with the dilemma of deciding if we should drive a safe speed or a legal speed.

But first I had to find someone to introduce a bill to repeal the National Maximum Speed Limits. As in all my work, the grassroots power of NMA activists all over the country was my secret weapon.

Scott Klugg, R-WI, introduced HR607 on January 20, 1995, but I felt it wouldn't get the support it needed to pass. It read: A bill to amend title 23, United States Code, to eliminate penalties for noncompliance by States with requirements relating to the use of safety belts and motor cycle helmets, the national maximum speed limit, and the national minimum drinking age, and for other purposes. The reason I didn't put NMA support behind this bill was: 1) I knew the motorcycle groups had strong, active lobbying efforts to get the repeal of the helmet law; 2) NMA membership is divided on the seat belt issue; the most important part was 3) The alcohol issue would not be popular.

Pat Roberts, R-KS, said that he would introduce a bill, but then reneged and suggested that he offer HR 1007, a bill to allow 65 mph in urbanized areas of 50,000 that could now only be posted at 55 mph. I quickly withdrew NMA support from this bill, believing this bill to be a mockery.

In January 1995, I visited the office of Larry Combest, R-TX.. I spoke with his Legislative Assistant, Lisa Elledge, who was handling transportation issues. She told me Larry offered a bill every year for – maybe for five or six years now, for a repeal of the NMSL. It was sort of an office joke she said, but he really wanted the repeal. I felt HR 427 was the bill to get behind and push it as hard as I could, and we worked well together.

The Surface Transportation subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure hearing for changes in the National Highway (NHS) was to be held on March 1, 1995. I had visited all the offices of the members of the subcommittee. I knew enough now to know that the leadership on both sides was against repealing NMSL. I also knew that the leadership for NHTSA, FHwA, insurance companies, and 144 safety groups were also against a repeal. I was told that "NMSL was cast in concrete – it had been in effect for 23 years, and would NEVER be repealed. . . ."

I knew that I needed something to break this mindset – but I didn't know what.

At first I thought if I just visited the opposing members and talked logic to them that they would see the error of their ways – but I quickly realize the proverbial "My mind is made up – don't confuse me with facts" mentality. Besides, time was running out. I needed a member of the House subcommittee to offer the amendment. Bill Brewster, D- OK agreed to offer it. This proved to be a blessing, as Norman Y. Mineta, D-CA, was going to call for party unity against the bill – and because Mr. Brewster had agreed to offer it and he was a Democrat, Mr. Mineta had to drop this idea.

I knew it would be helpful if I could get support from some of the leadership. Tom Petri, R-WI, was an ideal choice, as he represented the state with the headquarters of NMA and he was the chairman of the Surface Transportation committee.

The committee meeting was coming soon and I needed to find someone to give testimony at the subcommittee hearing. I first called Jim Baxter to come Washington and give it, but he suggested that I ask Martin Parker of Martin R. Parker & Associates, Inc., Wayne, Michigan. I then called Dr. Parker. He declined, saying that he would need his study in order to testify. The title of his study was "The Effects of Raising and Lowering Speed Limits." He had been enlisted to conduct by the Office of Safety and Traffic Operations R&D, Federal Highway Administration (FhwA). I asked him where his study was? He told me that it was being review by the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

I started telephoning people and getting the proverbial run-around. I finally talked with Margarite, the secretary for Stephen Godwin, Director of Studies and Information.

She made me an appointment for that afternoon to visit with Mr. Godwin. The visit was disappointing as Mr. Godwin told me he had never heard of the study and maybe I didn't have all my facts straight – nicely of course. I came home wondering in what to do next.

As I walked in through my front door, the phone was ringing. It was Margarite and she said that she had found the study and it was completed. She said she would send it over to me immediately. I then called Mr. Parker back and told him, and he said I could do whatever I wanted to with the study. But in the meantime he had made other plans and could not come to DC on the dates that I had asked about.

I made 10 copies of the full report and 535 of the commentary and summaries and I took them to all members of congress. Many members of congress started telephoning NHTSA and FHwA demanding to know where this study had been and why they hadn't seen it when the Final Report was dated October 1992. This study was the turning point of the repeal.

Senator Don Nickles, R-OK and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell were the cosponsors of the repeal in the Senate. S-476. Time was running out, as the Transportation subcommittee would be meeting soon and if an amendment wasn't offered, it would just not go anywhere. I had spoken with all the members, save one, Senator Lauch Faircloth. No one wanted to handle this "hot potato." I had called Senator Faircloth's office numerous times, but couldn't seem to get through to the person that handled the transportation issues. On Monday, May 1, I called – again- and a George Howard answered the phone. I told him who I was and that I wanted to schedule an appointment. There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Then, he said, "You just aren't going to leave me alone until I talk to you, are you?"

I was taken aback, but I took a deep breath and as pleasantly as I could muster said, "No, I'm not. The subcommittee meeting will be on the third and I need to talk with you."

He sighed and replied "If you can be in my office in 20 minutes I will meet with you."

"Yessssss!" I said. I was in Mr. Howard's office in 10 minutes. He listened to all I had to say about the repeal, and then without a word he turned and picked up the telephone and punched in some numbers. Then, he said into the receiver, "I have this woman in my office who thinks that we can get rid of the speed limits."

A few minutes later he turned back to me and said "We will think about it." Mr. Howard telephoned me Tuesday morning and told me that the Senator would file an amendment.

I thought that meant that he would offer the amendment in the subcommittee. I was delighted and I called all the subcommittee members' offices and told them. That evening Mr.

Howard called me back and said that the Senator had changed his mind, and wouldn't be offering the amendment. I exclaimed "NO! I called all the subcommittee members and told them that the Senator would offer it." Mr. Howard's sounded flabbergasted, as he cried out "YOU DIDN'T?" I was disappointed and slightly confused as well. "I said quietly, u2018I did, I thought it was a done deal.'"

I was really low, but I thanked him for calling me and then told him "at least by telling me this evening, you won't have to see a grown woman cry tomorrow during the subcommittee meeting."

I was as surprised as everyone else when Senator Faircloth offered the amendment and called for a voice vote. Five yeas, including the Senator from Nevada who told me the night before that he would vote nay, and three nays and one abstaining. It passed and everyone was congratulating me.

I sighed as I reflected, and wrote in my journal: Where else but in the USA could I discuss flowers with the congresswoman from NY and the congressman from ID, both living next door to me, then walk to the Senate Office building for a meeting on the speed limits. I have come a long way since I got that speeding ticket in Victoria, Texas.

Ah, little did I know that the battle was just beginning and it would be fought with the "big guns." I had been ignored by the opponents of State's Rights and the idea that people are basically capable of making rational choices. But there was a lull and I basked in the victory.

My first inkling of what was to come, came on May 8. A press conference was held on the east lawn of the Capitol. The biggest foes of freedom from both sides of the aisle were the leadership of the Transportation committees in the House and the Senate. They were joined with NHTSA, FHWA, and the leadership of the Highway Patrol of both Maryland and Virginia. I came early to visit with people who would be attending, giving out bumper stickers "LET'S END THE HYPOCRISY: REPEAL 55" and lapel pins that were a red circle with a slash through 55. Imagine my delight when I noticed during the filming of the conference a bumper sticker across one video camera and a lapel pin on the jaunty cap of another cameraman.

I didn't let up my efforts. I continued to visit the offices. In fact, I personally visited every office in the House – 435 to be exact and 100 in the Senate. During these 11 months I literally wore out four pairs of shoes.

Over the next six months I steadily visited congressional offices smiling, waiting, answering questions, and supplying information concerning the wisdom of supporting the repeal. Sometimes I felt holding the votes together was like trying to hold mercury.

First the National Highway Systems bill went through the Senate on June 20, 1995 and passed 65-35. When the repeal went for a vote in the House September 20, 1995, the vote was 419 yeas, 7 nays, and 8 not voting. The language wasn't the same and it had to go into Appropriation which was very ominous as the repeal of NMSL could have been tabled and never voted on again. During this time I had tried to get an appointment with Ricardo Martinez, Director of NHTSA, but was repeatedly turned down. All is well that ends well, and a veto-proof bill was sent to President Clinton for his signature. November 28, 1995, was the end of the National Maximum Speed Limits.

NMA had done the impossible, and benefitted every motorist in America, and I was so proud to be part of it.

July 28, 2000