Southbound traffic on Interstate 25 in Denver on July 29, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
By Leigh Giangreco
Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine didn’t mince words last month when he weighed in on a legislative plan to increase speed limits on certain Ohio highways: He was a no.
“Every expert that you talk to can tell you that the data clearly shows that if we increase the speed limit, even only by five miles per hour, there will be people who will die in Ohio that would not have died if we kept the speed limit where it is today,” DeWine told reporters.
Ohio lawmakers abandoned the speed limit proposal. But in at least five other states — Indiana, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia — state legislators have pushed similar speed limit hikes this year, even as traffic fatalities have climbed to their highest level in nearly two decades.
There were 43,000 traffic deaths across the country in 2021, a 16-year high, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most American drivers spent less time in their vehicles during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But those who did drive the emptier streets were more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors such as texting, speeding, running red lights and driving under the influence, according to a 2022 report from the American Automobile Association.
“It’s the worst possible time to be raising the maximum speed limit on any road in the U.S.,” said Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety, advocacy and research at AAA.
Road fatalities are up despite infrastructure countermeasures such as rumble strips and state legislation prohibiting dangerous behaviors such as texting while driving, Nelson added.
And while it’s true that advanced assistance technologies on newer vehicles have made driving safer, the average age of an American’s car is a little over 12 years old, “which means that only the wealthiest Americans can access vehicles that have these technologies on them,” Nelson said.
Even with an advanced car, said Chuck Farmer, vice president of research and statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers who speed decrease the time available to correct their mistakes or react to the actions of other drivers.
“Then once you do react, your brakes take longer to stop the car because you’re going faster, and should you hit something, you’re going to hit it with a lot more energy,” Farmer said. “That increases your chance of injury and death.”
But supporters of higher limits dismiss the idea that relaxing the rules will lead to more fatalities; some even argue the opposite.
While some drivers try to follow speed limits, they point out, many others ignore them if a higher speed seems safe and appropriate on a particular road. This can prompt the drivers who want to go faster to weave through traffic as they try to pass slower vehicles.
“Slower driving is absolutely safer,” Stephen Boyles, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an email to Stateline. “However, there are questions about whether lowering a speed limit actually slows down drivers. Differences in speeds among drivers are also dangerous: it leads to tailgating, lane changing, passing, and other dangerous maneuvers.”
Boyles said many engineers recommend a “rational speed limit” approach, based on observing traffic and setting the limit to the 85th percentile, or picking a limit so that only 1 in 7 vehicles is driving faster than that.
In New York state, Republican state Sen. Thomas O’Mara emphasized the dangers of speed differences in pushing a bill that would increase the maximum speed limit on certain roads from 65 mph to 70 mph. O’Mara represents some or all of five rural counties in western New York along the Pennsylvania border. He emphasizes that the change would apply to roads in districts like his, rather than in congested urban areas.
“This would, I believe, put vehicles more within a similar speed range … as well as just doing something that would maybe make New Yorkers lives just a little bit easier by being able to get to their destination faster,” O’Mara said of his bill.
At least 15 states already have speed limits over 75 mph on rural interstates, and eight of those go up to 80 mph on certain segments, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The higher limits are particularly popular in Western states such as Nevada, South Dakota and Utah.
Some states, including Montana and Nevada, had no speed limits at all until 1974, when Congress and President Richard Nixon set a maximum of 55 mph on all interstate roads. A desire to save energy in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo, not safety, was the impetus for the 55-mph limit. But road fatalities dropped by 16.4% between 1973 and 1974.
The federal government leaned on states to comply with the speed limit law by tying it to highway funding. But in 1995, the new Republican majority in Congress approved legislation repealing the federal limit, framing it as a states’ rights issue. Insurance and environmental lobbyists, as well as former President Bill Clinton’s transportation secretary, opposed the bill, but Clinton reluctantly signed it. Overnight, speed limits in many Western states shot back up to 70 mph or higher.
The continued push for higher speed limits on rural highways comes at a time when more pedestrian and safety advocates are calling for lower speed limits on arterials and local roads, especially where pedestrians and cyclists are sharing the road with cars, Nelson said.
Environmentalists around the globe also are pushing for lower limits, even in places where speed is lauded as an integral part of the culture. In Germany, for example, where the Autobahn famously has no speed limit at all, environmentalists point to a recent government study showing that setting a limit of 120 kilometers per hour, or about 75 mph, would cut emissions by 6.7 million tons each year.
Still, in some states the data is mixed on the connection between higher speed limits and fatalities. In South Dakota, for example, lawmakers in 2015 raised the state’s maximum speed limit to 80 mph. After the change, South Dakota police issued more citations for extreme speed, 100 mph or higher, according to a 2017 analysis from the Argus Leader.
But in South Dakota, it’s not clear that speed was the leading cause of crashes. In 2015, 20.7% of fatal crashes in the state were speed-related compared with 33% in 2016. The rate dropped to 20.7% in 2017 and then climbed to 33.6% the following year.
Speed was involved in 27% of fatal crashes in the first year of the pandemic, the state reported, and 23% the second.
Some lawmakers across the border in North Dakota saw their southern neighbor as a model. North Dakota Republican state Rep. Ben Koppelman introduced a bill this year that would have raised the state’s highway speed limit from 75 mph to 80 mph, arguing that its flat geography made it an ideal place for increased interstate speeds.
“If we all wanted to be safe all the time, we’d never leave our homes. And if we wanted to be 95% safe all the time, we’d all drive 20 mph and be wrapped in bubble wrap,” Koppelman said. “But the point is, we’re talking about statistical data.
“It’s individual freedom and it’s individual responsibility,” he added. “If we wanted the government to make all the decisions in our life for us, we would just computerize everything in our lives and have your car operate itself like it’s the subway.”
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum wasn’t convinced. In late March, he vetoed Koppelman’s bill, arguing that the higher speed limit would increase the risk of speed-related crashes and conflict with his administration’s Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate fatalities caused by motor vehicles.
Leigh Giangreco is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared.
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