Fatalities rise on state's 65-mph roads Critics decry move to boost speed limit on stretch of I-95

Md. officials defend policy

Limit rises Monday between Baltimore, Washington beltways

December 13, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Fatalities nearly doubled on 65-mph highways in Maryland during the second year of the higher speeds, but state officials are proceeding with a plan to raise the speed limit on Interstate 95 between the Washington and Baltimore beltways.

Thirty-four people died on roads with 65 mph limits in the 12-month period ending July 1997. There were 18 deaths during the same period a year earlier, the first year that Maryland had speed limits above 55 mph.

Safety advocates say Maryland is making a mistake by raising the speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph on the stretch of I-95 -- one of the state's most congested highways -- beginning Monday afternoon. State highway officials first decided to raise the limit there more than a year ago and said it would take effect after construction projects were completed.

Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of safety, consumer, police and insurance groups, said increasing the speed limit on that portion of I-95 is "a real dangerous thing to do."

He urged the state to consider its fatality statistics. "An increase to 34 [deaths] strikes me as significant enough to justify looking into what's going on," he said

State Highway Administration officials defend the higher limit on I-95 and other roads as prudent and safe.

"If anything, we have safer roads out there," said Thomas Hicks, director of the SHA Office of Traffic and Safety.

He said the increase in fatalities is not "earthshaking" because it is part of a natural yearly fluctuation. It only appears large because relatively small numbers are involved, and because it ,, followed an unusual drop in fatalities two years ago, he said.

The state first adopted 65-mph limits on 250 miles of rural interstate highways in July 1995. In next 12 months, there were 18 fatalities on those roads, down from 29 the year before.

Although Hicks said yesterday that the drop was an "anomaly," Gov. Parris N. Glendening pointed to the decline in July 1996 when he gave the green light to raising speed limits to 60 mph and 65 mph on another 85 miles of highways.

That second batch included some of the state's congested freeways, such as the 22.5-mile stretch of I-95 between the beltways.

At the time, officials said the speed limit there would eventually rise from 55 mph to 60 mph once some construction projects were finished. Later, state highway officials decided that 60 mph was too "conservative" and opted for 65 mph instead.

While fatalities on 65-mph roads almost doubled in one year, the number of miles posted at 65 mph rose 16 percent, and road travel increased a few percentage points.

Regardless of how one interprets the Maryland data, safety advocates say, an increase from 55 mph to 65 mph inevitably leads to more deaths and injuries.

"You can't alter the laws of physics. The faster you go, the longer it takes you to stop and the more severe any crash will be," said Julie Rochman of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry-funded research group.

The institute recently released a study showing that fatalities rose 12 percent in 12 states that increased their highway speed limits in 1996. "With a 10 percent increase in the speed limit, there is a 15 increase in fatalities over time," Rochman said.

Congress imposed a 55-mph speed limit in 1974 to save fuel, and highway fatalities dropped significantly.

The government allowed states to set a 65-mph limit on rural interstates in 1987, and in 1995 Congress repealed the 55 mph speed limit entirely.

VTC Rochman said 36 states have raised their speed limits above 55.

Some traffic engineers, such as Hicks, argue that roads become safer when speed limits are set closer to the speeds vehicles actually travel, because it reduces the speed variation among cars.

According to that viewpoint, the greatest danger occurs when drivers traveling at 70 mph encounter those going 50 mph.

An important reason for raising the limit on this portion of I-95, Hicks said, is that many drivers already ignore the 55 mph limit. Studies suggest that 15 percent of motorists are traveling above 70 mph there.

Safety advocates are unimpressed. "It's kind of like letting the convicts make the laws," said Rochman.

Some worry that many people accustomed to exceeding the speed limit by 10 or more miles per hour will continue to do so, regardless of the limit.

"Most people go at 65 and 70 now that the speed limit is 55. With 65 they will be going at 75 or 80," said Dr. Paul Stolley, who commutes on I-95 from Columbia to his office in Baltimore.

"I would prefer to drive 55. It's safer, and I feel more in control. I know if there's an accident, I would more likely survive," Stolley said.

State highway statistics show that the speeds at which most people are traveling on 65 mph roads have crept upward by 2 to 4 mph, depending on the month, during the last two years.

The higher limit is being cheered by some motorists.

"It's realistic, and I would rather see a realistic speed that police can enforce than one that people blatantly disobey," said Mark Behm, an official at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who frequently drives on I-95.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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