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Why 55? (1979)

Appearing as Host/Narrator

This 15-minute public service film was made in late 1979 for use by police departments and driver education classes throughout the United States. Its purpose was to emphasize and reinforce The National Maximum Speed Law, which was enacted in 1974 and set a federal speed limit of 55 mph throughout the United States. Since many states had speed limits as high as 75 mph prior to the enactment of the federal law, and some states (such as Montana) even had roads with no posted speed limit, the law became a source of great contention. While the law was at first welcomed because of America's first "energy crisis" and the resultant rise in gasoline costs, in addition to an apparent rise in the number of traffic fatalities, by the late 1970s an increasing proportion of drivers were exceeding the 55 mph limit. In an attempt to persuade motorists to continue to abide by the law, public service films such as Why 55? were made, along with television, radio, and print advertisements featuring popular celebrities such as Willie Nelson. Slogans such as "55 Saves Lives" and "Don't Be Fuelish" became ubiquitous.

In this program, James MacArthur, who had left Hawaii Five-O only a few months prior to filming and was therefore still widely recognized as a staunch supporter of law and order, explains why the 55 mph limit was safer both by allowing extra reaction time to avoid accidents and by resulting in less damage should an accident occur, as well as more economic in terms of fuel cost and more energy efficient in terms of vehicle wear and tear. A video clip of the film's concluding remarks can be viewed by clicking here.

Despite strenuous effort by the United States Federal Government, including films such as this one, opposition to a federally mandated speed limit grew stronger and more vociferous as time went on. Numerous studies disputing the government's safety and economy assertions were publicized. These, plus a spate of legal cases filed by individuals, along with state and local governments, eventually resulted in change. In the late 1980s, the law was modified to allow a maximum speed of 65 mph on certain types of roadways. In 1995, the law was repealed altogether, returning the power to set speed limits to the legislature of each individual state. Most states immediately reverted to their pre-1974 limits and remain there today.


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