Virginia touts 65 mph limit as safer than 55 mph

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

November 02, 1992|By FEDERAL HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION, STAFF GRAPHICS

Would raising the speed limit on Maryland's rural highways from 55 miles per hour to 65 mph make them less safe?

It's a controversial idea that has puzzled traffic experts even before the federal government authorized states to increase speed limits on their less densely populated interstate corridors in 1987.

The answer, according to the folks at the Virginia Department of Transportation, may surprise you.

The people who build and manage the Old Dominion's roads say studies show that their highways are no more dangerous as a result of a higher speed limit.

In fact, they think Virginia is safer because they raised the speed limit to 65 mph on rural interstates four years ago.

Hard to believe? Well, we warned you it's a controversial topic.

Last month, Intrepid Commuter asked our readers to examine the issue of highway speed limits.

We consulted the experts. We looked at the studies. We paid close attention to what our readers had to say and write on the subject.

Today, we offer the first of two columns examining the arguments pro and con in the speed limit debate and the implications for Maryland.

A little history

Only nine states and the District of Columbia maintain a 55 mph speed limit on all their highways, and all except Hawaii are located in the traffic-congested Northeast. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly adopted a program that would have authorized an experimental use of the 65 mph speed limit. But the legislation was vetoed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who faced considerable opposition from the insurance industry.

The Maryland highways that could qualify for the higher speed limit are: Interstate 95 north of Route 24 in Harford County to the state line, I-83 north of Hunt Valley to the state line, I-70 west of Bethany Lane in Howard County to Hancock, I-270 from Gaithersburg to Frederick, I-68 in Western Maryland excluding Cumberland, U.S. 50 from Bowie to Annapolis, and I-97 south of the Route 3 Business exit in Glen Burnie.

The argument against raising the speed limit has always been fairly straightforward. The faster vehicles are traveling, critics point out, the greater the risk: Drivers have less reaction time and the impact of collision is greater.

Opponents have also insisted that since drivers routinely violate the 55 mph speed limit now, raising it by 10 mph would cause even faster -- and hence more dangerous -- speeding. And, of course, they can point to a decreasing number of highway fatalities since the government imposed the 55 mph speed limit nationwide.

But those arguments don't take into account how drivers on rural highways are apt to behave today, and the kind of driving behavior that leads to accidents, according to proponents of the higher speed limit.

Virginia's example

J. Lynwood Butner, Virginia's chief traffic engineer, says that since the state legislature adopted the 65 mph limit on its 825 miles of eligible interstate highways on July 1, 1988, Virginia has experienced no discernible increase in either the rates of accidents or fatalities on those roads.

But he takes it one step further. The higher speed limit may actually save lives, he says.

Here's why. First, one of the great problems with the 55 mph speed limit is that while a lot of people obey it, many others do not.

A primary reason they speed, engineers theorize, is that they can. The highways were designed and built to handle traffic traveling at 65 mph, and motorists can instinctively discern that the higher speed is safe.

On Maryland highways, for instance, an average one in five drivers is traveling faster than 65 mph. Slightly more than one in three is going along at 55 mph or slower.

This results in a great variation in speed, which causes conflicts and ultimately accidents as motorists pass other cars, weave through traffic, or otherwise behave aggressively.

Next week: Maryland's Top 10 Fastest Highways, and what our readers have to say about a 65 mph speed limit.

STILL 55

These jurisdictions still don't allow highway speeds greater than 55 mph.

CONNECTICUT

DELAWARE

HAWAII

MARYLAND

MASSACHUSETTS

NEW JERSEY

NEW YORK

PENNSYLVANIA

RHODE ISLAND

WASHINGTON D.C.

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