Live Free And Die?

SAY FAREWELL TO A WHOLE truckload of Washington-mandated highway safety rules: the 55-mph speed limit, mandatory seat belt use, and required motorcycle helmets. Congress wants to ax these regs as part of a drive to give more power to the states.

While states technically aren't bound by Uncle Sam's rules, those that flout them lose a chunk of federal highway funds. Critics, though, think highway laws should be tailored to local conditions. Westerners particularly question the federal speed limit when there are vast stretches between towns. "Each state is the best judge of what the speed limit should be on its highways," gripes Senator Don Nickles (R-Okla.). He is fighting to repeal the speed limit as part of a pending highway spending bill.

Rule-backers fear Nickles' popular plan will lead to more fatalities. They note that in 1974, when the 55-mph speed limit took effect, car-related deaths dropped by 16%. When the limit rose in 1987 to 65 mph in most areas, fatalities shot up about 20% nationwide, says Jacqueline Gillan of the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety. But Nickles says states can lower speeds in accident-prone areas. Even with opposition from the powerful auto-insurance industry, it looks like a clear road ahead for many of the changes.

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