65 mph limit is popular but not likely in Maryland


November 09, 1992|By State Highway Administration

Edwin Cox thinks Maryland's 55 mph speed limit undermines safety, while fellow Baltimore resident July Schilling "shudders" at what would happen if the limit were raised.

They represented some of the divergent opinions of Maryland's commuters when it comes to the issue of raising the speed limit to 65 mph on rural interstates. It is a move that has been supported by the state legislature but opposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"The governor is presently telling us that we should travel as fast on the Beltway as we do on Interstate 68 west of Cumberland, even though the congestion is radically different," Mr. Cox writes.

Counters Ms. Schilling: "I am a former resident of Maine, where the speed limit is 65, and everyone goes 75. I absolutely shudder at the thought of traffic moving at 75 mph on Maryland's congested and curving highways!"

Which point of view is correct? As we discussed last week, there is evidence to support both.

The insurance industry has fought long and hard against raising the speed limit. They contend that higher speeds make driving more dangerous and accidents more likely to lead to fatal injuries.

A recent study supported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analyzing 1989 highway accident records, for instance, estimated that higher speeds due to higher speed limits contributed to 400 deaths on rural interstates in 40 states that allow higher limits.

But there are also traffic engineers who contend that unrealistic speed limits contribute to accidents, too.

Interstate highways in rural areas were designed to handle 65 mph traffic, and drivers routinely exceed the 55 mph limit, which was set as a nationwide standard primarily to save fuel. That has led to a loss of respect for traffic laws in general, the experts suggest, causing motorists to speed on secondary roads.

"You reduce a speed limit below what people think is reasonable and they ignore it," contends J. Lynwood Butner, chief traffic engineer for Virginia's transportation department. "That increases the chance they'll ignore things like stop signs and yield signs and speed limits where they should be obeying it."

A University of California/Irvine study found greater improvement overall statewide traffic fatality rates in the 41 states that have adopted the higher speed limit since 1987 than in those states that maintained the lower limit.

Judging from the majority of calls and letters that Intrepid Commuter has received over the past five weeks, we are forced to conclude that a lot of Maryland residents would like to see the state adopt a 65 mph speed limit on its rural interstate highways.

Speed zones

Maryland drivers already set their own pace -- both swift and slow -- on highways with identical speed limits.

The fastest highway in Maryland is arguably the Capitol Beltway, where average traffic speeds were in the 60 mph range and up to a third of motorists were driving faster than 65 mph during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The traffic moved at that rate despite frequent congestion.

To collect data about the speed of vehicles, the State Highway Administration maintains 32 monitoring stations along its busiest highways. Sensors embedded in the road can detect the speed and size of vehicles and report those results automatically to a computer at the SHA's traffic center near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The program is mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which regularly threatens to withhold highway construction money from states that inadequately enforce their speed limits.

The SHA reports show that a majority of highway motorists are driving faster than 55 mph on average and one in six are exceeding 65 mph.

And make no mistake, people who drive rural interstates speed, too.

No raise ahead

Don't expect to see a higher speed limit in Maryland any time soon. Governor Schaefer vetoed legislation permitting an experimental use of the 65 mph limit two years ago, and aides say that his position has not changed.

Enthusiasm for another battle over the topic isn't running high in Annapolis. Last year, a similar measure was defeated in the state Senate.

Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, a sponsor of the 65 mph speed limit bill two years ago, said he would certainly vote for the legislation again but has no plans to sponsor it as long as the governor's opposition continues.

The problem, he says, is simple: No politician wants to raise the speed limit if there is any chance that he could be blamed for bloodshed on the highways.

"Nobody wants to live with that," says Mr. Dembrow. "The way he [Mr. Schaefer] sees it, there's little to be gained by signing the bill."


Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

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