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Still awaiting apology from speed limit 'experts'

I'm waiting for an apology. Even a simple acknowledgment would do.

You should be waiting, too. But be prepared to sit for awhile.The latest highway death toll figures are out and, once again, the number of deaths declined over the previous year. This has become a trend -- a wonderful trend, of course, but a trend nonetheless. Overall, the nation lost 41,480 people to highway accidents in 1998, down from 42,103 the year before. That's 19 percent lower than the number of fatalities 20 years ago.

So, from whom am I expecting an apology? From all those experts four years ago who predicted carnage and endless bloodshed if Congress removed the 55-mph restrictions from the nation's highways.

Remember them? If not -- and they probably are counting on you having forgotten -- here's a refresher. In 1995, when most people felt driving 55 was like taking a cruise through the Internet on a 286 (actually, in 1995 many of us were still booting up 286s, but you get the idea), a debate started raging over the wisdom of increased speeds. The people who opposed any increase seemed to be slapping a cologne called "smug arrogance" on each morning before facing the cameras. They acted as though they had common sense and statistical certainty on their side. They were the valiant warriors of logic doing battle with the good ol' American penchant for self-indulgent recklessness and excess.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the insurance industry and others warned highway fatalities would increase as much as 30 percent with higher speed limits. The federal Transportation Department was a little more specific, saying an additional 6,400 people would die each year.

Some members of Congress got in on the act. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "It should be obvious that the death toll will rise. It would turn our highways into killing fields."

Killing fields? Add 20 mph to the highways and suddenly Pol Pot is the secretary of transportation.

The truth is they all were relying on a faulty premise. Speed is not the only determining factor for auto accidents. If it were, one could argue that the nation could virtually wipe out all accidents if it reduced the speed limit to 20 mph.

Actually, there was a time when people traveled that slowly. It was the 1920s, and, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, driving was a lot more dangerous back then. Today's highway death rate is about 1.6 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 1925 it was 18. This despite the fact today's drivers travel a lot more and the number of vehicles in operation has increased 11 fold.

Since 1925 the nation has added a few little safety devices, such as center stripes along roads, well-lit super highways that keep high-speed traffic separated and seat belts, to name just a few. Sure, speed would become an issue if it exceeded a safe mark for modern highways, or if it surpassed the average human's ability to react, but we haven't reached that point yet.

Highway speed limits may seem like a minor thing, but the furor four years ago is an example of the type of muddled thinking that often seems to take control of the public dialogue. It is almost as annoying as the public's inability to remember and hold people accountable when they are proven wrong years later.

That is why, for example, we continue to hear about the dire condition of the nation's environment and of the desperate need to control chemicals. Meanwhile, most people overlook the fact that life expectancy for babies born today is 76.1 years, up dramatically from a generation ago. The number of people diagnosed with an AIDS-defining illness has declined, infant mortality is at a new record low, teen pregnancy is down and, believe it or not, the United States is gaining 69,000 acres of wetlands a year. New studies are even proving DDT to be harmless.

By every objective measure, life on earth is becoming healthier. Sure, the temperature is rising, but no one has conclusively demonstrated that man causes this or that it is an irreversible trend.

I don't realistically expect any of the doomsayers or the anti-55 mph people to apologize. Even if they made honest miscalculations, that sort of thing isn't in vogue these days.

But if we are to objectively study the problems that do exist out there, and if we are to begin attacking the still-too-high death rate on the nation's roads, we need to separate the truth from the scare tactics. That may involve some people at least admitting they were wrong.

Deseret News editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached by e-mail at even@desnews.com