Study Needed On Effect Of Raising State's Speed Limit


Bill Setting 65 Mph In Rural Areas Awaits Schaefer Approval

April 21, 1991|By Sharon Hornberger

With its citizens' lives at stake, Maryland officials should commission a study to examine the potential effects of raising speed limits on interstate highways in rural areas to 65 mph.

If the governor does not veto the bill passed by the 1991 General Assembly, the speed limit on about 160 miles of Maryland's 312 miles of federal interstate rural highways would be increased to 65 mph.

As enacted, the measure provides for the State Highway Administration to raise speed limits on certain rural stretches as part of a pilot program to examine the impact of the increase on actual speeds traveled and highway safety.

In April 1987, Congress gave the statesthe option to raise the 55 mph limit to 65 on rural stretches of interstate. Currently, 46 states are eligible, under federal law, to raise the speed limit to 65 mph.

Forty states have opted to do so; among the exceptions are Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Maryland's Transportation and Highway departments and the state police have consistently opposed raising the speed limit, saying that higher speeds are a contributing factor in many automobile accidents.

In the past, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has said that he would veto a 65-mph bill. However, during the past session ofthe legislature, he said he would consider a pilot program to test the effects of the increased speed limit on rural highways.

The 65-mph speed limit would involve most of Interstate 70 from Howard County to Western Maryland, I-83 in northern Baltimore County and stretches of I-95 in Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties. While there are no interstate highways in Carroll, 46.5 percent of the county's work force commutes out of Carroll for employment.

Proponents of the 65-mph limit declare there are studies that show no correlation between a higher speed limit and more traffic deaths. They say that the interstates were designed for safe driving at speeds considerably higher than 55 mph. They point out that higher speeds are safer because traffic flows smoothly, and when traffic is flowing smoothly, fewer accidents occur.

Traffic engineers who set speed limits to accomplish a normal traffic flow generally set them at the 85th percentile of driven speeds where the possibility of an accident is lowest. In Maryland, that formula would work to set the speed limit at 65.8 mph.

Opponents of the higher speed note that nearly 50 percent of the nation'sdrivers exceed the speed limit. Maryland is one of five states in which more than 50 percent of the drivers exceed the limit, and the state has been threatened with the loss of 10 percent of its federal highway funds as a penalty.

They say that when increasing speed to 65is considered, the 5 to 10 mph "police tolerance factor" must be taken into account. It is generally acknowledged that if a 65 mph limit were adopted, at least 50 percent of the nation's speedometers would creep up to 70 mph or more.

And 70 mph is an unsafe speed.

The National Research Council notes that a change to 65 mph would save 1 billion driver hours a year. However, the NRC points out that the time saved would be at the expense of 500 lives and 500 serious injuriesa year on rural interstates.

A 1987 Johns Hopkins School of Public Health study casts serious doubt on the wisdom of speed increases on rural highways. The study shows that crowded roads in urban areas have fewer highway deaths than do rural roads.

It should be noted also that greater speed means greater fuel consumption. Figures indicate that for every mile per hour increase over 55, fuel use increases 10 percent. Fuel conservation was the sole reason the 55-mph limit was imposed by Congress in 1974, during the Arab oil embargo.

In October 1989, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's report to Congress said states with 65-mph speed limits on rural roads forthe past two years showed an estimated 31 percent increase in fatalities on those roads.

However, in the states that retained the 55-mph limits, including Maryland, the average increase in fatalities on rural roads was 10 percent.

Proponents of a 65-mph limit have reports and statistics to show why the higher speed is the way to go. Opponents employ reports and statistics to show why it is not.

A pilot study in Maryland would tell us what the effects of 65 mph would bein our state. I welcome such a study.

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