Drivers may get the chance to legally travel 65 mph on a Maryland highway for the first time in two decades, but it could come at the expense of their radar detectors.
The General Assembly launched debate yesterday on whether to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on parts of some rural highways, and indications are that some version of the measure is likely to become law.
In years past, bills to increase the speed limit faced one major roadblock: William Donald Schaefer. As governor, he vetoed a 65-mph- bill in 1991, and his veto threats stalled similar legislation each year since.
But Gov. Parris N. Glendening has thrown his support behind the idea, trumpeting it in his State of the State address last week.
Yesterday, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee witnessed another novelty.
For the first time, officials with the State Highway Administration publicly endorsed the higher speed limit, claiming that it could make the roads safer.
"We're not talking about increasing speed. We're talking about recognizing the reality of the situation," SHA Administrator Hal Kassoff told the committee during a hearing on a Montgomery County senator's proposal to raise the speed limit.
The reality, Mr. Kassoff said, is that the average speed on Maryland's rural highways has risen from 57 mph in 1989 to 63.7 mph last year, while the number of accidents and resulting fatalities on those roads has dropped.
But the administration is also asking legislators for some safety trade-offs. Legislation that Mr. Glendening is expected to submit today would link the higher speed limit with a ban on radar detectors and tougher penalties for speeders.
Charles F. Porcari, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening, said the governor has not decided whether he supports the provisions, added at the SHA's request. The governor decided only that "the issue deserves to be debated," Mr. Porcari said.
The more congested urban highways, such as Interstate 95 between Washington and Baltimore, are proscribed from the higher speed limit under federal law.
The 271 miles of rural highways that would be eligible -- such as stretches of Interstate 68 in Western Maryland and I-83 north of Baltimore County's Shawan Road -- are designed for speeds up to 70 mph.
The greater danger for drivers on those freeways is speed differential -- the mix of vehicles going 55 mph and 65 mph, Mr. Kassoff said.
"Speed is not nearly as important a factor in accidents as speed differential," Mr. Kassoff said. "The one-in-10 drivers who are following the 55 mph limit are presenting themselves as a hazard."
Under the governor's proposal, maximum fines for speeding would be increased from $500 to $1,000, and drivers could be penalized five points on their licenses for driving 20 mph above the speed limit, instead of 30 mph.
Mr. Kassoff said state police would more aggressively enforce the new limit.
One possibility would be to use aerial surveillance, an approach used to crack down on motorists running red lights last year.
"In addition to raising the speed limit, we must take measures not to raise speed," he said.
Maryland is one of only eight states that have not raised speed limits since the 55 mph law was first imposed 20 years ago.
Traffic safety experts representing the auto insurance industry said yesterday that the proposal is bound to cost lives.
"This is an issue where politics and data collide," said Chuck Hurley, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.- based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"We'd like to tell you that you can drive as fast as you want without risk to others, but it's not true. You'd not only have to repeal the speed limit, you'd have to repeal the laws of physics."
Insurance industry officials said the experience of other states has been that more drivers will go 75 mph or higher and that the number of fatal accidents will increase. They warned that elderly drivers will be reluctant to drive faster and that the risk to them will increase.
"There will surely be increased death and injuries," said Jacqueline S. Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "Every state has experienced it."
But advocates of the bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jennie M. Forehand disputed that claim. They said that speeds already have increased on Maryland highways and that keeping a 55 mph limit that so many people violate breeds disrespect for all traffic laws.
"I'm in the legislature to write laws that people are willing to obey," said Ms. Forehand. "And most people don't think 55 is reasonable."