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A Call To Lower the Speed Limit to 55

It's tough love for the oil addicted.
 
 
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"I can't drive 55!" -- Sammy Hagar, Heavy Metal icon also responsible for the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack.

"People try to go as fast as the car will go ... One thing the truckin' industry has done year after year is raise the speed limit ...When man goes a little bit faster than walkin'; that's very unnatural ... People have a way of getting' carried away with it and they do this thing called speedin' ... I blame it all on the trucking industry, all of it, all this racing around and everything! So, I had this idea ... -- Michael Russell, Peripatetic Picker & Patriot

Fifty-five! Now there's a number that used to unite the United States. Coast to coast the law of the land was fifty-five miles an hour. Just as patriotic Americans worked together and planted victory gardens to fight food shortages during WWII, in the 1970s, with help from the insightful policies of an enlightened congress, Americans responded to the OPEC energy embargo with character and resolve. We reduced our consumption of petroleum.

Imagine the national unity of will it must have taken in 1975 to get Chevrolet to produce the subcompact Chevette and to persuade people to drive it! The effect of the collective effort knocked a dent in the all time petroleum production curve and set peak oil back a decade from legendary oil geologist M. King Hubbert's initial estimate of a 1996 peak. It's amazing what Americans can do when they work together! Just ask Neil Armstrong.

Congress laid the groundwork for mass-producing and popularizing fuel-efficient cars in 1974, a year before the Chevette hit the assembly lines, with The Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. It prescribed a national 55 miles per hour speed limit to reduce gasoline consumption. Its follow up, The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, among other things, raised the corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) from 18 mpg to a 1985 level of 27.5 mpg. These steps were taken to mitigate the negative economic effects that our increasing dependence on "foreign oil" had wrought.

Our support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war caused a backlash among the seven Arab sisters of OPEC and Saudi King Faisal decided to use the oil weapon against the West on October 17th 1973. After the initial economic disruption, we retaliated with the conservation weapon and it worked. The embargo ended exactly six months later, but the conservation policies still looked like a good idea in light of the dawning realization that America had passed its all-time production peak in 1971. They seemed even better in 1979 when a second oil shock stemming from the Iranian revolution rocked the world economy.

By '84 attitudes had changed. Like petulant children, having come down hard from a candy-driven sugar high and ready for a new buzz, Americans started consuming petroleum in the transportation sector again at an unprecedented rate. The rationalizing child's argument that "since she has a dollar and the candies are only a penny a piece, she should be entitled to eat 100 pieces" is exactly the same argument by which Americans collectively justified their gasoline consumption. Why conserve an apparently cheap and plentiful commodity? At the 1985 low of $20 a barrel in 2006 dollars, oil was astronomically under-priced, a fact hidden from the narcissistic gaze of late 80s yuppies and Wall Street types.

Fundamental rights were at stake. How dare the government infringe on the "flow of commerce" and my right to declare my independence with the speedometer of my automobile (not to mention odometer). Sammy Hagar's screeching foray into the world of social protest with "I can't drive 55" from his 1984 Voice of America album summarized the oil optimism and deregulation imperative of the Reagan era. By the late 80s, Americans were driving gas-guzzling Jimmys, Jeeps, Blazers and Broncos 75 mph through the light truck loop-hole in the CAFE standards. Fifty-five became a number from America's past.

The trend of incessant, high-speed, high-cost, low-efficiency driving requiring vast amounts of imported petroleum continues today unabated. Just fly over Atlanta and behold the wonder of hydrocarbon man. The average American drove 13,657 miles in 2005. In 2004 the Census Bureau report Journey to Work pegged the average American's one way commute at 25.5 minutes and identified over 3.4 million people driving more than 90 minutes each way. Another 3.3 million people earn their living as truck drivers. That's almost forty miles a day, everyday. We drive too much.

It's not just how much we drive, but it is also what we drive. SUV's accounted for 55 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S in 2005. The average vehicle in the U.S. fleet gets about 20 mpg. As of May 1, 2007 the average price of a gallon of gas was $2.97, just slightly off the September '05 all-time high of $3.05 and oil prices aren't headed any lower. As we prepare to cruise into the summer driving season, gasoline inventories are dangerously low and some are predicting the return of the infamous seventies gas lines. The tragic irony of this situation is that we now we drive Expeditions and Escalades as tax deductions.

According to Dr. Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, the event of the century happened last summer. He claims, "After some 147 years of almost uninterrupted supply growth to a record output of some 81-82 million barrels per day in the summer of 2006, crude oil production has since entered its irreversible decline."

Bakhtiari should know. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and spent many years as a senior analyst for the Iranian National Oil Company. He's an expert among oil experts. He says that his "World Oil Production Capacity model has predicted that over the next 14 years, present global production of 82 million barrels per day will decrease by roughly 32 percent, down to around 55 million barrels per day by the year 2020."

In 14 years we'll have only 55 million barrels a day for the whole damn planet. America alone uses 22.5 million barrels a day now. In 1999 our very own Tricky Dick Cheney, wearing his Halliburton hardhat, forecast global demand in 2015 at approximately 140 million barrels per day.

It doesn't take a math whiz to realize that major structural changes in how we use energy, especially in transportation, are coming whether we like it or not. They are not coming for our children or our children's children but for those of us tooling down the freeway chattering on cell phones or immersed in I-pods right now. In 2020 my first born son will be 17 -- good thing is I probably won't be expected to buy him a car for his 16th birthday since gas will be to scarce to waste on teen-trial motoring. Good chance I won't be driving by then either. We will be forced to tighten our energy consumption belts cooperatively and rationally through enlightened policy and leadership or through the "state of nature method" also known as late capitalism. In either case, the twilight of hydro-carbon man is upon us.

So, here's the pitch for a transportation transformation. We needed to get started on this way back in yesteryear, but there's no time like the present. We need to make a symbolic statement to the world, on the order of 9/11, about American character and resolve. How bout Fifty-five! Let's put the 55 signs back up. Let's make 55 mpg the industry efficiency standard. Let's put a 55¢ tax on every gallon of gasoline and dedicate that "common wealth" to the rebuilding of the public transport system. Let's wake up and get serious about the energy future of our country.

We'll go from zero to fifty-five in nothing flat. The signs will take a couple of weeks to put up and couple of months of tickets will have the first part in the bag. The technology of 55 mpg cars is out there so long as we don't insist on driving tanks. With the Hummers, Peterbilts, and the Kenworths off the road and a Sunday-driving speed limit, armored personnel carriers will no longer be necessary for a trip to the park. I even know of an empty GM factory right here in Oklahoma City that could be retrofitted for the 2008 Chevette-hybrid-plug-in! A 4 percent annual improvement in fleet efficiency falls well within the range of the possible according to experts. As for gas, $3.52 for a gallon isn't so much more than $2.97. Since every American uses around two gallons a day, we would generate billions of dollars annually for investment in a less energy intensive transportation system, like rail for example.

It's the commuters and the truckers who aren't gonna like fifty-five. We'll pull a Dr. Phil and frame it as "tough love" for the oil addicted. Isn't that what they call it when a parent takes his drug addicted child to treatment against the child's wishes? We'll help them admit that the commute has become unmanageable by making it a little longer. We'll let the higher-power of the U.S. government restore them to sanity with a telecommuting initiative. We'll give out conductor hats and rail-worker flags to all the truckers. Maybe with some grassroots encouragement, some of them can start growing food where they live instead of driving it in from California. We can even turn all the unused tractor trailers into temporary, mobile, housing for the victims of the next hurricane.

A friend of mine walks around in her garden wearing her United We Stand T-shirt and holding her kid with perma-grin stretching from ear to ear, perpetually elated by the thought of the brand new Toyota Camry hybrid of which she is now the proud owner. She took me Sunday-drivin' in the neighborhood the other night. Her little Toyota play-station actually teaches her to drive for the best gas mileage, and it pats her on the back with a little blinking "Excellent" when she keeps the mileage up. She told me the other day she will forgo air-conditioning since in the one day she used it her mpg dropped from 38.3 to 37.4. This is the attitude of a reformed SUV driver. God bless her -- it's that attitude that we need to universalize. Its high-time to reframe patriotism as petroleum preservation!

Fifty-five would be the first baby-step, albeit a symbolic and psychological one, toward the collective acceptance of the eventual decommissioning of our entire private transportation system that will be the inevitable consequence of peak oil. It would represent a national avowal of the geologic reality that faces us. It would be growing up; a step back from the childish yet catastrophic consumption that characterizes our American culture.

One day soon we'll just be remembering fifty-five. The truth is that for many of us the future will have a decidedly less mobile feel, especially if we don't immediately heed old Jeremiah Kunstler and "start making other arrangements" in right now. We ought to heed the prophetic voice of that other sage of Saratoga Springs, Michael Russell, and his idea for a nation-wide slowdown!

Matthew Miller holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of South Carolina, grows food on his lawn, poops in a bucket in his garage and drives sixty-one on the interstate. He also serves as a peak oil prophet for the greater Oklahoma City area. He plans to quit driving and to build an Earthship with his communist buddies.

 
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