The Advocate: Jim Baxter, National Motorists Association

Tell us about the origins of the NMA.
It was founded [in 1982] to repeal the 55-mph national maximum speed limit. It’s strictly a grassroots organization. The idea was that we could rally all the people who were supportive of getting higher speed limits on the rural interstate system – and other places as well. That was the formative objective of the organization and remained our primary objective up until 1987, when we were successful in getting Congress to at least allow the states to raise the speed limit to 65. We then became involved in a wider range of motorist issues, but the speed limit and speed-limit-related topics have always been among our primary areas of involvement.

What is the NMA’s focus today?
For the past few years, much of our time has been spent on automated enforcement – photo radar, red-light cameras – the whole movement toward the use of automated means to give people tickets.

Is this a particularly perilous time for motorists’ rights?
There are a couple phenomena right now that are working at cross purposes to motorists’ rights. First, we see a greater emphasis on traffic enforcement for revenue generation. There’s also an effort to reduce people’s ability to contest these kinds of tickets, by removing various due-process rights – for instance, by charging people to contest a ticket.

Do you see this as a Democrat/Republican issue?
No. I wish we could point at one or the other as the boogeyman, but this is more like the government against its citizens.

Are you a known entity among your local law-enforcement agencies?
I’ve never had any negative experiences because of our position. Actually, a fair number of police officers belong to the organization or are sympathetic with our arguments, because they would much prefer to be out there doing legitimate police work than being used as cash machines for the local unit of government.

You have some old motorcycles. Do you have any vintage cars?
I’ve got a 1931 Plymouth that I’ve had since I was fourteen years old.

What’s your favorite ride?
I have three old Honda Sabres. I’ve always liked that motorcycle. That’s what I probably ride the most for fun. I haven’t had a car that I’d want to brag about for many years.

National Motorists Association

The Story of the 55

Reacting to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Congress passed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which included a 55-mph national maximum speed limit. President Nixon signed it into law in January 1974.

Predictably, given that interstates were designed for 70-mph travel (in 1950s cars), compliance was abysmal. Studies showed that as many as 85 percent of drivers exceeded 55 mph. Ironically, traffic engineers try to achieve a limit that’s higher than the speed at which 85 percent of drivers travel.

Unfortunately, the fuel savings proved negligible (one percent, according to the DOT). In 1987, Congress raised the limit to 65 mph. It was finally abolished in 1995.

Could it happen again? Well, last year, Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) called for a study of the benefits of returning to a 55-mph limit, and Representative Jackie Speier (D-California) introduced a bill to establish a 65-mph maximum. Uh-oh.