Is faster really safer? Highway fatalities: The raising of speed limits contributes to death toll and driver unease.

September 07, 1997

FASTER IS SAFER, insist the supporters of higher speed limits on the nation's highways, or even no limits at all.

And this just in: Up is down. Black is white. Night is day. Smart is dumb.

The tripe that speed advocates have been pushing the last few years is ludicrous on its face: They succeeded in convincing Congress and President Clinton that the 55 mph national speed limit was unnecessarily strict and should be left to the states anyway. The law, indeed, was changed two years ago and states, including Maryland, raised their speed limits, some with great abandon.

We are now paying for that misstep.

In Montana, which dropped daytime speed limits for most vehicles, highway deaths are up 31 percent this year. The fatality rate dipped initially, but that comfort was short-lived. Said state Rep. Joe Quilici, ''Our friends and neighbors are dying out there.''

The image of the mangled sedan in which Princess Diana, her companion and their driver were killed has re-focused public attention on road safety because of the excessive speed of the sedan, the flawed design of the Paris tunnel and the drunken state of the chauffeur.

Closer to home, a fiery, fatal truck crash on the beltway last month once again hammered home the point that speed kills.

An engineering principle known as the "85th percentile" is often used by supporters of higher speed limits to argue that conservative limits are futile because most people drive at a speed at which they are comfortable. The rationale fails to acknowledge that unless you are alone on a prairie interstate, highway driving is not an individual act but part of a complex web involving hundreds of people making judgments at high speeds.

Insufficient time has elapsed since most states raised their limits to reach a valid conclusion from the fluctuating fatality statistics. But a general sense among drivers that our roads have become more dangerous and less forgiving is impossible to deny.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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