There's a way to bring down gas prices, but you won't like it

A speed limit sign.
A speed limit sign. Illustrated | iStock

A modest suggestion to deal with rising gas prices: Let's bring back the 55-mph speed limit.

Prices were already on the upswing before Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, thanks largely to a slow ramp-up in oil production following the pandemic-driven collapse in demand. Now the cost is going to go up even more, driven higher by sanctions on Russia's oil and gas industries. We're getting a real-time lesson in the laws of supply and demand.

For the most part, the solutions on offer are supply-driven. The Biden Administration has approached the oil-rich nations of Saudi Arabia and Venezuelafalteringly — about loosening their production spigots. The White House has also ordered that 60 million barrels be released from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Republicans, meanwhile, want the United States to ramp up domestic oil production. It's "drill, baby, drill" all over again, but it's not clear that any of these moves will do much to meaningfully bring down prices.

Meanwhile, nobody in government is really talking about how to use less gasoline.

One quick-and-obvious way we can do that is to make everybody drive slower. We've done it before. Congress passed the national maximum speed limit in 1973, not as a way to save lives in traffic accidents, but to reduce gasoline use during the Arab oil embargo. The limit lasted 22 years, and during that time the country reduced its consumption by 167,000 barrels a day, and as much as an overall savings of 3 percent of annual fuel consumption. (It also inspired Sammy Hagar's best song.) Yes, it made long car trips interminable — I say this as a child of the era who spent way too many hours trapped in a crowded backseat with my sisters — but it also saved a lot of gas. We could do it again.

Of course, the big problem with this proposal is that most Americans will despise it. We love our speed. One 2020 survey suggested that nearly half of us have driven 15 mph over the existing speed limits, which range from 65 mph and up in most states. Drivers in a country that produced the Fast & Furious films won't be inclined to toddle down the highway at a moderate speed, no matter how much it saves them. The last few years have proven we're not so great at making small individual sacrifices — like, say, masking up — for the greater good, and our politicians don't seem much inclined to ask it of us.

But the benefits of a lower speed limit would be undeniable. Russia would have less leverage over the rest of the world, and the White House wouldn't have to go hat in hand to monarchies whose rule is propped up by their petroleum reserves. It would be good for the climate, and reduce the number of traffic deaths.

Let's face it, it's easier to achieve energy independence if you don't use so much energy.

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