The Nation's Pulse

Safe at Any Speed

Americans are driving faster -- and safer -- than ever before.

By 9.13.05

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You can now drive 80 mph -- legally -- in the state of Texas; 75 in twelve other states, including Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma. Eighteen states, among them California, Michigan and Florida, have raised their upper limit to 70 mph.

Only Hawaii still "drives 55."

So -- with the exception of the poor Hawaiians -- one can now lawfully drive 15-20 mph faster than the formerly sacrosanct 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL), which Congress repealed ten years ago, in 1995.

Prior to 1995, driving at those speeds was "speeding," even "reckless driving," and put one at risk of a fat fine, loss of license, and high insurance premiums. The line was this was necessary for reasons of "safety"; that is, speeds in excess of 55 mph were dangerous because people were more likely to get into accidents and be hurt or killed.

We were being ticketed for our own good, you see.

BUT AN INTERESTING THING happened after the NMSL was finally repealed in 1995. Contrary to the line we were being spoon-fed about "safety," motor vehicle accident and fatality rates actually dropped. They have continued to do so. The latest data (for 2004) show yet another decrease -- to just 1.46 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

This is the lowest the nation's fatality rate has ever been.

If "speed" necessarily "kills," then -- ipso facto -- there should be rivers of blood and twisted steel in states like Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, and Florida, where people now routinely (and lawfully) drive 70-80 mph. Things should be notably "safer" in Hawaii.

But no.

The accident/fatality rate in states with much-higher-than-55 mph limits has not gone up. ("Revenue" from trumped-up speeding tickets may have gone down, of course, but that's got little to do with whether the roads are safer.) Higher limits are not leading to the Mad Max scenario we were warned of in often hysterical bleats by those opposed to lifting the NMSL. The objective data simply does not support any of that.

Indeed, quite the opposite. The data suggest that higher-than-55 speeds are, in fact, safer than "driving 55."

If they are not, one must come up with a rational explanation for the downturn in accident/fatality rates since 1995. The ghost of Dale Earnhardt is not watching over a nation of "reckless maniacs," shielding them from the consequences of their crazy driving.

We're driving faster -- and we're driving more safely.

It's actually an easy thing to explain why this is so -- and, hopefully, to understand.

OUR HIGHWAY SYSTEM WAS DESIGNED for average speeds in the 70-75 mph range. The federal government gave us the 55 mph NMSL as a fuel-saving measure in response to the gas shortages of the early 1970s. It may have been well intentioned, but the 55 mph NMSL set the precedent for politically contrived (and artificially low) speed limits that had nothing to do with safe, appropriate speeds for a given stretch of road. Motorists were being pulled over and ticketed for no good reason, and most knew it in their gut. They were driving 70-something before the NMSL, when, suddenly, by the stroke of a pen, what had been lawful, safe rates of travel well within the design specification of the road had become illegal "speeding."

The corruption spread. Under-posted speed limits became the rule rather than the exception. Nearly every road in the country was afflicted with a posted maximum lawful speed 5, 10, 15 -- even 20 -- mph lower than the 85th percentile speed for that road. The "85th percentile" is the speed at which the majority of cars on a given road are traveling; this is the standard according to which all speed limits are supposed to be set under the guidelines of the "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices," the "bible" of traffic safety engineering. The MUTCD and its guidelines are, however, routinely ignored -- and lower-than-reasonable limits posted that turn nearly ever driver into a "speeder" subject to being ticketed at any time.

And that, of course, is the nut of the deal. Speed enforcement, to a great extent, is about money, not "safety." Most motorists can't help driving close to 85th percentile speeds -- and with the natural flow of traffic -- rather than hewing to an artificially low limit, even if it opens them up to a "speeding" ticket. State and local authorities know this, and know how much money can be raised through traffic tickets. This is why there was so much resistance to getting rid of the NMSL.

But now the cat is out of the bag. Or at least, his head is. The "speed kills" lie has been exposed.

It's taken more than 25 years, from time the NMSL was imposed to its repeal in '95, to get highway speed limits back to where they were. And to free America's motorists from the tyranny of being ticketed at every turn for "violating" posted limits that themselves were in violation of both traffic safety engineering principles (MUTCD) and common sense.

With any luck, the unshackling will continue -- and the rest of the "revenue enhancement" speed trap racket shut down at the state and local levels, too.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.