Wendesday, March 27, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 117


 
 









 

Double nickels are not a good idea

Matthew E. Caster

Some of you are already dealing with the most cataclysmic change in Houston in decades, while others stand aside and wait before it hits
them too. Virtually unanimous outrage at this decision has already poured through the media. 

Mothers cringe at the thought that their children might someday have to live under the tyrannical rule of the infamous "double nickels" not
so anyone would actually notice, but the speed limit on all Houston freeways is in the process of dropping from whatever it was (no one really
knew) to 55 miles per hour.

The magical number 55 was chosen specifically because tests have shown it is the speed at which vehicles travel the farthest using the
least gasoline. The "highway" mileage shown on new cars is the number of miles a vehicle would travel at exactly 55 mph using precisely
one gallon of gasoline. 

This catastrophe is actually a calculated measure by federal and state agencies to reduce pollution levels in Houston. Their statistics show
our city to be the second-most polluted in the United States. 

The whole proposal is absolutely absurd. Not only are the attempts to fix the problem not likely to have a significant impact, but the problem
itself is difficult to properly define and measure. 

For starters, it is important to question what the big deal is. All of this madness began when Houston, for a year or so, usurped the most
polluted city title from perennial and current champion Los Angeles. Granted, Houston pollution is bad ... but surely it could not be worse than
Los Angeles'. But sure enough, Houston had more days of hazardous pollution than that dump in 2000.

After a bit of research, I found out why. Know where pollution ratings for Houston are taken? Deer Park. Deer Park? They might as well place
the measurement equipment inside a smokestack.

So Deer Park is one of the most polluted cities in the country. So how would lowering the speed limit where I live (approximately 55 miles
from Deer Park) lower the pollution level measured just downwind of the Chevron refinery? It wouldn't.

But for the sake of argument, let's focus on the Katy Freeway, the most congested freeway on Earth. Information from the Texas Department
of Transportation shows that Interstate 10 west of Houston averages almost seven hours of "rush hour" and 17 hours of "congestion" every
weekday. "Rush hour" traffic occurs when traffic moves less than 30 m.p.h. on average. "Congested" traffic occurs any time traffic moves an
average of at least 10 m.p.h. slower than the posted speed limit.

Fuel economy reaches a maximum at 55 mph, and deviating from 55 lessens fuel economy whether you're moving faster or slower. Fuel
economy at 70 mph is typically similar to fuel economy at 45 mph. When a car is moving at less than 30 miles per hour, it burns about half as
much fuel as it would at 70 mph ... but it's moving less than half as fast; you burn more gasoline for every mile you travel. 

Pollution is a problem in Houston, no matter where it's measured. The matter seems to have been overblown a bit, of course, but it's still
something we should try to reduce. Other measures, such as tighter industrial pollution controls, are a good idea and will help ease our
pollution crisis. But if our goal is to reduce automotive pollution, there is one thing we must do before we lower the speed limits, and that's
widen the highways enough so that traffic can actually travel at an efficient speed.

Caster, a senior chemical 
engineering major, can be reached at patrioticcatmaster@yahoo.com.


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