Death toll declines as drivers go 65 mph Maryland State Police credit strict control of higher speed limit

June 28, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

To the surprise of traffic safety experts, the number of fatalities on Maryland highways with a 65-mph speed limit has actually fallen in the year since the higher limit took effect.

Last July 1, Maryland raised the speed limit on 250 miles of rural interstate highways from 55 mph to 65 mph. Since then, there have been 17 deaths on those roads -- down from 29 the previous year, according to State Highway Administration data through yesterday.

While it is far too soon to toss out the slogan "speed kills," some state officials say Maryland's experience suggests that higher speeds don't always mean greater danger.

They are cautious in drawing conclusions based on one year's data, but offer two possible explanations for the decrease in fatalities. State police credit a crackdown on speeders and "aggressive drivers." A state highway official also says drivers appear to be traveling at more uniform speeds, reducing the risk of accidents.

"We are cautiously optimistic that enforcement and public awareness are paying dividends," said Col. David B. Mitchell, the state police superintendent.

Although the final death toll for the first year of 65 mph won't be known until midnight Sunday, it appears fatalities will be down not just from the previous year, but from the two years before that. In each of those years, 24 people were killed on the same highways.

The decrease is surprising because, based on studies of other states, highway fatalities should have risen with the speed limit.

A federal study found that deaths on interstate highways posted at 65 mph were 30 percent higher than would have been expected, based on historical trends. The 1992 study analyzed fatalities in 38 states in 1990.

Part of the reason is basic physics: The faster a car is going when it collides, the greater the force of the impact and the more severe the injuries. And the higher the speed, the more distance a car travels before it can stop.

Mitchell credits tougher enforcement of vehicle laws for the state's surprising results. On Memorial Day weekend 1995, state police launched a campaign against aggressive drivers -- those annoying and dangerous motorists who speed, tailgate, and weave in and out of lanes with little room to spare.

No longer content to rely solely on troopers planted on roadsides with radar guns, police asked motorists to report aggressive drivers. People dialing #77 on their cellular phones are connected to the nearest police barracks, Mitchell said.

There, someone takes down the offending car's tag number, description and location, and dispatches a trooper for a look-see.

Police coupled the aggressive driver campaign last year with stricter speed enforcement on 65-mph roads. "We made it clear to the motoring public that 65 mph is just that," Mitchell said. "We are not winking at 10 mph over the limit."

In fact, police are writing tickets for folks going 70 mph and pulling over others in the 66 to 69-mph range for warnings, he said.

State police wrote almost 487,500 tickets on all roads in 1995 -- a five-year high and 23 percent more than the previous year.

Thomas Hicks, director of Traffic and Safety at the State Highway Administration, said measurements by his agency show that, with the higher speed limit, cars are traveling at more uniform speeds -- which is safer.

The most dangerous traffic situations occur when a speedster barreling down the road at 70 mph suddenly encounters a slowpoke going 50 mph.

"Our contention when we favored the raise in the speed limit on certain roads was that the roads would get safer. And the [figures] seem to bear that out," Hicks said. "This time next year I may be singing a different tune, but I don't think so."

One traffic safety expert cautioned against drawing conclusions based on one year of data in a small state like Maryland.

"You're dealing with small numbers. When you have numbers that are that small, they can fluctuate for any number of reasons," said Allan F. Williams, a researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Maryland officials are considering raising speed limits to 60 or 65 mph on other major highways, including the U.S. 13 bypass in Wicomico County, Interstate 81 and I-70 from U.S. 29 to the Baltimore Beltway.

So far, Maryland drivers have reacted to the higher speed limit by going slightly faster on the 65-mph roads and slightly slower on those posted at 55.

Traffic engineers rely on the 85th percentile speed -- the speed that 85 percent of the cars are traveling at or below. That speed grew from 69.3 mph in previous years to 70.8 mph in the past year, Hicks said.

The 85th percentile speed on roads that stayed at 55 dropped slightly from 69.3 mph to 68.3 mph during the last 12 months. The fatality rate on those roads -- which include many non-interstates like Pulaski Highway -- remained unchanged -Z during the last two years, he said.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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