65 mph passes the one-year marker Fatalities drop: Md. officials shouldn't draw quick conclusions based on scant data.

June 30, 1996

WHILE THE NEWS is encouraging, it would be a stretch to argue that a drop in Maryland highway fatalities in the first year of a 65-mph speed limit is vindication that speed doesn't kill.

Certainly, it is a positive sign that deaths on state highways dropped to 17 since last July 1, compared with 29 the previous 12 months. The speed limit was raised from 55 to 65 mph on "rural" portions of Maryland's highway network July 1, 1995.

But it would be wrong to draw broad conclusions from that decline, any more than conclusions could be drawn from a one-year spike in the numbers.

Just ask neighboring Virginia. Its highway death toll dropped from 77 to 64 after it raised its speed limit in 1988, then it jumped to 81 the next year. In fact, that was the experience of a number of states after they raised their limits.

A host of reasons could have helped lower Maryland's death rate: As new cars have replaced older cars, air bags and anti-lock brakes have become more prevalent. The Blizzard of '96 probably paid benefits too, in keeping motorists home numerous days.

Indeed, highway deaths dropped in Maryland following the icy winter a few years back, but jumped the next year.

The increase to 65 mph undoubtedly helped make roads safer in at least one respect. State police acknowledge they were more vigilant after Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Col. David B. Mitchell, the police superintendent, put their reputations on the line that the speed-limit change wouldn't impair safety. We hope officers maintain their attentiveness, despite no marked increase manpower.

One troubling sign was that traffic speeds in Maryland crept past 70 mph with the higher limit, a trend seen elsewhere. State officials should not rush into posting 65-mph signs on additional roads, such as the U.S. 13 bypass in Wicomico County, Interstate 81 and I-70 nearest the Baltimore beltway.

First, they should monitor the situation for a few more years. The argument that "faster is safer" still seems incongruous, but if highway deaths in Maryland continue to drop, that line of reasoning could gain some validity.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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