Higher speeds OK'd on 8 state highways Glendening approves limits of 60, 65 mph on 85 miles of roads

July 18, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Armed with evidence that traffic fatalities dropped on Maryland's 65-mph roads in the past year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday gave the green light to raising speed limits to 60 mph and 65 mph on eight state highways.

The new limits, most of which will take effect in the next two weeks as workers erect roadside signs, will cover 85 miles, including stretches along some of the busiest thoroughfares in the state.

They include Interstate 95 between Washington and Baltimore (60 mph), U.S. 50 from Martin Luther King Jr. Highway to Interstate 97 (60 mph), and Interstate 70 from U.S. 29 to the Baltimore Beltway (65 mph).

Because of construction, the I-95 speed limit will not be raised until this fall.

The majority of the higher speed limits were rejected by federal regulators last year when Maryland first adopted a 65-mph speed limit on 248 miles of rural interstates.

But when Congress repealed the nationwide 55-mph speed limit last November, the state was free to set speed limits without federal oversight.

Glendening said Maryland's one-year experience has demonstrated that higher speed limits will not increase traffic deaths, which actually dropped from 26 to 17 on the 65-mph highways.

He said drivers' "responsible" reaction to the new limits and aggressive police enforcement have helped.

"Certainly, it is too soon to say this significant decrease in traffic fatalities will continue, but the outlook is good," Glendening said at a news conference in a Bowie Park & Ride lot along U.S. 50.

"Safety will continue to be our first priority in any decision about adjusting speed limits."

Safety advocates and car insurance industry officials decried the decision, which they said would make Maryland's highways less safe.

They said 12 months was too little time on which to base such a major policy decision.

"They are ignoring widespread evidence in this country and other countries around the world that when speed limits are raised, there are going to be more fatalities," said Adrian K. Lund, a senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

Walter R. Smith, a spokesman for Chevy Chase-based insurer GEICO Corp., said the move overlooks a simple fact of science: "The faster cars come together, the more horrible the accidents are going to be.

"We expected the state to be more prudent," Smith said.

"This is going to cost Maryland citizens dearly."

But state officials insist the higher speed limits should make roads safer by keeping traffic at a more uniform pace.

It is speed differential -- a car at 55 mph in conflict with a car cruising at 65 -- that often causes highway accidents, said Thomas Hicks, the State Highway Administration's director of traffic and safety.

"Our experience is that people won't drive faster," Hicks said.

"But I think you'll see a tighter bunching -- more people driving at the same speed."

Safety advocates said that has not been the experience in other states.

Raising the speed limit to accommodate speeders sets a poor precedent, they said.

"It's like saying kids under 21 are already drinking so let's do away with the drinking age," said Cathleen L. Hickey, a spokeswoman for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington.

Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent, yesterday warned that troopers will not be giving a cushion to drivers who exceed the new limits.

He said he expects strict enforcement no matter what the speed limit.

The highways chosen for higher speed limits were selected by the SHA in consultation with state police.

Only 20 miles of roads are getting boosted to 65 mph. The remaining 65 miles are being changed to 60 mph.

The state sought last year to raise speed limits on all but three of the highways now chosen for higher limits.

The three additions are all in the suburbs: I-95 between the Baltimore and Washington beltways, Interstate 195 and Interstate 795 from the Baltimore Beltway to Westminster Pike.

In Western Maryland, a 4.4-mile stretch of I-70 from the Pennsylvania line south will be made 60 mph.

Interstate 81 will have its speed limit raised from 55 to 65 mph, except around Hagerstown, where it will be 60 mph.

On the Eastern Shore, the U.S. 13 Salisbury bypass will be designated 65 mph south of U.S. 50 and 60 mph on the north side.

In one other change in the Baltimore area, Interstate 83 south of Warren Road to the Beltway will be posted at 60 mph.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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