65 mph: faster but not better

July 03, 1995

Many motorists believe they can get somewhere much faster and just as safely by driving 65 miles an hour instead of 55. They're wrong, and they now have a chance to find that out. A pocket calculator quickly demonstrates that the extra 10 mph shaves only a few minutes off driving time -- nine minutes on a 50-mile trip. Yet a car takes longer to stop at 65 mph than at 55, and crashes at higher speed cause more damage to occupants and vehicles. Nevertheless, the speed limit on 265 miles of interstate highways outside the most congested areas went to 65 mph Saturday.

Despite the show Gov. Parris Glendening put on for the TV cameras in announcing a "safety" campaign, state transportation officials know the downside to a higher speed limit. They opposed raising it for years. Now they say it doesn't matter.

According to the state's own figures, motorists have been ignoring the 55 mph limit. Even before the legislature acted, drivers were averaging nearly 64 mph on these stretches of highway. That means a lot of them were exceeding 65 even without official blessing.

A federal study of rural interstates with higher speed limits strongly suggests that, as a result, the risk of accident and death is also higher. State officials like to point out that fatalities are no higher in the states with the 65 mph limit. What they fail to say is that, on the highways with the increased speed limit, fatalities are about 30 percent higher. The overall fatality numbers are stable simply because they are dropping on the highways which still have the 55 mph limit.

The argument of state officials that Maryland motorists, who are already driving nearly 65 mph on the rural interstates, won't increase their speed doesn't withstand close examination either. The federal study, unfortunately five years old but the latest analysis available, found that motorists did increase their speeds when the limit was raised.

Why won't that happen here? The answer from the governor is a highly publicized effort at strict enforcement of the new limit. State troopers, augmented by $50,000 in overtime money, are out in force this holiday period -- as they are every major holiday. Divided by the 265 miles of highway subject to the new speed limit, that money won't last very long. It's the governor's responsibility to make sure his misguided decision doesn't increase the death rate on Maryland highways.

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