WASHINGTON -- In 12 states that raised their highway speed limits in 1996, the number of deaths from automobile accidents increased by a total of 500 in the last nine months of the year compared with the preceding year, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The study by the institute, a nonprofit association of insurance companies, implies that the total human cost of the national speed limit repeal will eventually be far higher, because 27 other states, including Maryland, have raised their speed limits since Congress abolished the national 65-mph limit in December 1995.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is preparing its own report on highway deaths. Phil Frame, a spokesman for that agency, said its findings would be in a similar range.
When speed limits in the 12 states were raised on the Interstate system, the death rate increased by an average of about 12 percent, according to the insurance institute.
If all states follow that pattern -- some increasing the limits just on the interstates and others relaxing rules on state roads as well -- the number of people killed in cars every year could rise by about 6 percent, said Adrian Lund, senior vice president of the institute.
Last year, 32,317 drivers and passengers died on highways and streets in the United States.
"If the kinds of speed-limit increases we've seen in these 12 states occur in the whole country, we could be looking at about 2,000 more deaths a year," Lund said.
Increased speed makes it more difficult for cars to stop and makes accidents more severe, he said. "You can go faster," he said. "It's just a question of how many lives we're willing to pay to do that."
The increase in deaths in states with higher speed limits is partly masked by a general improvement in the safety of cars.
The total number of deaths in vehicle accidents for 1996 was 41,907, including pedestrians and cyclists -- only slightly higher than the total of 41,798 in 1995.
"You can't look only at the overall fatalities, because there are lots of factors," Lund said. "We have changes in cars. Over 2,000 people are alive today just because the cars have air bags and the vehicle fleet is getting more protective."
Even so, experts at the insurance institute expect the number of deaths to rise.
"When speed limits are raised, drivers who exceeded the old speed limits will exceed the higher limits, too," Lund said.
Pub Date: 10/12/97