Proponents, opponents, opponets of faster, 65 mph limit will argue their cases at Schaefer veto hearing


May 20, 1991|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Will more people die on the highways if the speed limit is raised to 65 mph on rural interstates in Maryland?

One group, led by the Government Employees Insurance Co. (GEICO), contends that the price of raising the speed limit above 55 mph would be more deaths and injuries. Opponents of the higher speed limit point to a bundle of reports that document a significant increase in highway deaths in many states that have a 65 mph speed limit.

However, those who favor the higher speed limit say it would not lead to highway carnage. Studies simply do not prove that 65 mph is dangerous, they contend, and most Marylanders drive that fast now anyway.

Ultimately, Gov. William Donald Schaefer will have to decide whom to believe. He is to hear from both sides tomorrow at a rare veto hearing on legislation that would permit Maryland to increase the maximum speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph on more than 150 miles of rural interstate highways.

Schaefer, who has previously opposed the 65 mph speed limit, remains undecided this year. As a result, State Police and transportation officials have not taken a public position on the legislation.

Roads currently eligible for the higher speed limit under federal rules include Interstate 70 from the Howard County line to Washington County; I-270 from Frederick to Gaithersburg; I-95 from Big Gunpowder Falls to Delaware; and I-83 in northern Baltimore County, said Michael Zezeski, traffic projects division chief with the State Highway Administration.

Other potentially eligible roads, including those being upgraded to interstate standards, are U.S. 48 in Western Maryland, part of I-97 in Anne Arundel County and portions of U.S. 50 west of Annapolis, Zezeski said.

If the bill becomes law, the highway administration is considering the higher speed limit for the interstates running from Frederick to the West Virginia line as a test project, he said.

Congress forced states to reduce their speed limits to 55 mph in 1974 as a fuel-conservation measure. With lower speed limits, states began reporting fewer highway fatalities rates.

In 1987, Congress allowed states to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on interstate highways in rural areas, and about 40 states opted for the higher speed limit. Supporters say the amount of additional fuel burned at 65 mph is relatively small, but safety questions remain troubling.

States that increased their speed limits in 1987 experienced 31 percent more accident deaths on rural interstates in 1989 than otherwise expected based on historical trends, according to a 5-month-old federal study.

About one-third of those fatalities were the result of increased travel on those interstates, and two-thirds were associated with the higher speed limit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

Yet the report urges caution in interpreting its findings. Many states with a 65 mph speed limit have so few deaths on rural interstates that large yearly changes in fatality numbers can occur simply as a result of chance.

Thirty-five states with the 65 mph speed limit experienced an increase in fatalities on rural interstates from 1986 to 1989, while five states saw either no change or a decrease in highway deaths, the study found.

Even supporters of the 65 mph speed limit bill concede that motorists will suffer greater injuries when crashing at higher speeds.

The bill's chief sponsor, Del. Dana L. Dembrow, D-Montgomery, says people must find a balance between safety and efficiency. "If we were a horse-and-buggy society, we would have fewer fatalities," he said.

"I don't think there is a statistical correlation between 65 mph and [decreased] safety. You can make those numbers talk either way," he said.

Dembrow said he believes most drivers ignore the 55 mph limit because it is too low. "I was driving 55 the other day, and I was passed by everything under the sun," he said.

If signed into law, Dembrow's bill would "legitimize what 90 percent of the reasonable, responsible people on the road are doing," said Charles Terlizzi, Maryland state chapter coordinator of the National Motorists Association, a motorists' rights group that supports the higher speed limit.

Actually, slightly less than half of the drivers are exceeding the 55 mph speed limit on Maryland interstates, according to State Police.

Opponents of the higher speed limit worry that many drivers will actually drive at 70 to 75 mph if Maryland opts for a 65 mph limit. They blame automotive advertising and America's fascination with fast cars for encouraging people to speed.

At least one study has documented an increase in the number of drivers exceeding 70 mph on roads with a 65 mph limit. In 18 of the 40 states that adopted the higher limit, the percent of vehicles exceeding 70 mph climbed from 6 percent in 1986 to 20 percent in 1989, according to the NHTSA.

Dembrow says he believes his bill "saves lives" by enabling people to spend less time on the road and more time at home and work.

The savings in time, however, is minimal, said August P. Alegi, GEICO group vice president. If you drive 65 mph, rather than 55 mph, during the average 20-mile commute, you will shave only three minutes off your driving time, he said.

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