Raising speed limits is irresponsible — states keep doing it, of course

Cars are America. America is freedom. It’s no accident that the country’s foundational myths are written in road trips. The Oregon Trail. Sal Paradise and his Cadillac. That time your stoner college roommate decided to drive his crap can from Jersey to LA.

And freedom is getting faster, at least in the West. In April 2015, South Dakota became the fifth state in three years to increase its daytime interstate speed limit to 80 miles per hour or more. On some sections of Texas road, 85 is de rigueur.

The economic and emotional justifications for the trend were neatly laid out by The Idaho Statesman editorial editor Robert Ehlert: “The 80 mph speed limit is an antidote to those high airline ticket prices and nickel-and-dime onboard fees,” he wrote….“The 80 mph speed limit is symbolic of my individuality and freedom … This is the West. This is the way we roll.”

But a raft of research shows that when speed limits go up, so do fatalities—along with financial costs and environmental hazards. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimates speed limit increases were responsible for 12,545 deaths and 36,583 injuries between 1995 and 2005. The number of rural interstate fatalities we can blame on higher speed limits jumped 9.1 percent during that time.

Why, then, have speed limits — and especially speed limits in rural areas — rocketed in recent years? Partly, it’s that speeding exists in a cultural gray area. Everybody does it, so why not change the rules to reflect that? More crucially, it’s a result of regional politics, where geography, ideology, and antipathy for regulation make higher limits a win. Especially for politicians.

…Higher maximums mean wider gaps in speed between individual cars. That’s less safe for everyone. A recent analysis led by Wayne State civil engineers found that fatality rates on roads with limits of 75 mph or higher are double those on interstates where things move more slowly.

Higher speed limits come with a financial cost, too. Changing the rules doesn’t just mean repainting the signs. State DOTs have to revamp the infrastructure, making road curves smoother and adding crash pads to medians, for example, to make driving faster safer. Faster driving means maintenance costs go up, too. In 2014, researchers working with Michigan’s DOT found that upping rural interstate speed limits from 70 to 80 mph would save 15.4 million passenger vehicle hours a year, but would also cost $163.88 million annually for the design’s estimated 25-year lifespan.

And of course, driving faster burn more fuel. That’s why Congress set the national speed limit at 55 mph in 1978….That same Michigan DOT report estimated raising freeway speeds would increase the state’s annual fuel consumption by 68.7 million gallons — about $257.5 million worth of the good stuff (at 2012 prices). And if the money part doesn’t get you, remember that 68.7 million gallons of gas is equal to 1.3 billion pounds of CO2 emissions.

None of that counts the economic and societal costs of crashes themselves — $836 billion in 2010, according to the feds.

Opportunism is practically a genetic trait in American politicians. It wanders from knee-jerk support for bigoted laws to stuff so stupid that only differences between the two parties keep them in place. Here in New Mexico our silly-ass rule allowing a “social pass” for students who can’t read up to their grade level – if mommy and daddy complain – is opposed by Republicans. So, Democrats still support it.

And so it remains on Freeway speeds. I admit I used those higher speeds to advantage when I was on the road. I have all the rationales, e.g., I drove a car engineered for cruising speeds higher than the average American car, I had the skills and experience to drive at those speeds. Last fender-bender I suffered was a guy making an illegal turn who drove into my rear fender – in 1978. And driving 700-1100 miles/week, the time savings were significant.

Still, I would have been in less danger and less dangerous to other drivers at a reduced pace. I would have complied.

7 thoughts on “Raising speed limits is irresponsible — states keep doing it, of course

  1. Kip says:

    The 85mph highway mentioned runs parallel to I-35 just east of Austin, Tx. The minor problem that the highway designers didn’t think of is that at night the feral hogs with their kith and kin come out of the brush to forage and sleep on the road. Hitting a 200 lb.+ hog at 100mph, no one drives the speed limit on that road, in your super-dupermobile or your own Hog bike is like hitting, well, it is like hitting a 200 lb. hog. The expression ‘teeth, hair and eyeballs everywhere’ comes to mind.

    • Ça va! says:

      “What could I say? Maybe this: the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.” Milan Kundera, “Slowness” (“La Lenteur”), 1995

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