Moderated by Tom Sabulis
The Georgia Department of Transportation is looking at raising the limit from 55 to 65 on I-285. In Texas, the nation’s first 85 mph speed limit is planned for a 41-mile toll road between Austin and San Antonio. A local policy analyst argues that increased speed doesn’t necessarily mean more accidents and fatalities. A national safety expert says drivers automatically go over current limits and the statistics don’t bode well for healthy travel at higher speeds.
Commenting is open below Adrian Lund’s column.
By Benita M. Dodd
Most Georgians who travel the long, watch-paint-dry stretch that is I-16 between Savannah and Macon understand the unwritten rule:
You may exceed the posted speed limit of 70 mph, but not by more than 9 mph. If law enforcement clocks you at 80 mph or over, you’re toast.
In Texas, transportation officials acknowledge this reality and want to profit from it. In their case, they’re not just seeking revenue from speeding tickets, like most other jurisdictions.
They plan to implement the nation’s first 85-mph speed limit on a stretch of toll road in return for $100 million from the private toll operator.
The plan, for about half of a 91-mile toll road between Austin and San Antonio, is by no means outrageous or a harbinger of safety problems:
The United States saw a 22.1 percent decline in traffic fatalities from 2001 to 2010, according to the Annual Road Safety Report 2011 produced by the International Transport Forum.
Forty-eight percent of those fatalities took place on highways outside urban areas, despite higher population concentrations in urban areas.
Yes, higher speed limits are often allowed in rural areas, but it’s tough to determine how many fatalities would have been avoided if the speed was lower, drivers were less tired on long roads or trauma care facilities were nearer.
The speed differential — the difference between the speed of vehicles continuing along a main roadway versus those that are entering and exiting the road — is not as great a concern on a well-kept, limited-access toll road that has few entry and exit points.
The private operator is betting that when the toll road opens in November, the higher speed will draw more customers looking for a quicker, faster drive and willing to pay extra for a congestion-free trip.
It’s a safe bet.
It’s also planning ahead: “Smart” cars that can automatically keep a safe distance from other vehicles — and can even operate driverless — already promise to be the wave of the future.
They increase lane capacity, improve traffic flow, set higher safety benchmarks and avoid human error.
Google recently announced that its driverless cars had traveled 300,000 miles without incident.
Of course, some Texans may think officials appeared to “game the system” by deciding to simultaneously reduce the existing speed of the adjacent “free” frontage road.
Benita M. Dodd is Vice President at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
By Adrian Lund
Imagine cruising down the highway at 85 mph without getting so much as a raised eyebrow, let alone a ticket.
For many drivers, it sounds like a dream, and it’s set to come true on one Texas road.
But we’ve seen this one before, and it doesn’t end well.
Decades of research show that when speed limits are raised, drivers go faster and more people die in crashes.
The Texas Transportation Commission’s decision to establish the highest speed limit in the land on a new toll road between Austin and San Antonio means drivers there will be able to get to their destinations quickly, but at a cost.
High speeds increase the likelihood of a crash while simultaneously slashing the odds of surviving one.
Crashes are more likely because, at a higher speed, a vehicle travels a longer distance in the split second it takes to react to an emergency.
And the faster the vehicle is going, the further it will travel before coming to a stop after the driver slams on the brakes.
When crashes occur, they are deadlier at high speeds because the energy involved increases exponentially as speed rises.
At the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, before we rate a vehicle for frontal crash-worthiness, we send it hurtling toward a barrier at 40 mph, resulting in a severe collision.
Most new vehicles today do well in our moderate frontal overlap test, meaning people could survive a similar real-world crash without serious injuries.
But at high speeds, all bets are off.
The vehicle’s structure won’t hold up, and airbags and safety belts won’t be able to do their job. When a crash is imminent, a car traveling 65 mph has a much better chance of getting down to a survivable speed before impact than a car traveling 85 mph.
We know that many drivers exceed posted limits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take them into account.
Drivers typically pick a speed at which they think they won’t get a ticket — often 5 to 10 mph over the limit.
Many Texas drivers are no doubt already used to driving 85 mph on roads with 75 or 80 mph limits.
They’ll read the 85 mph signs as license to go 90 or more.
The 17 years since Congress did away with the national 55-mph maximum speed limit have given us plenty of opportunities to see what happens when speed limits are raised.
After the speed limit on three urban freeways in Texas was raised from 55 to 70 in the mid-1990s, we found that half the vehicles were going faster than 70 within a year, compared with 15 percent before.
Seventeen percent were exceeding 75 mph, compared with 4 percent before the change.
Around the country, such increases translated into more deaths. In 24 states that raised speed limits, including Georgia, we found 15 percent more fatalities on interstates and freeways than otherwise would have been expected.
Even with today’s speed limits, speed-related crashes cause more than 10,000 deaths a year — nearly a third of all crash fatalities in the country.
States could prevent some of these deaths if, instead of giving drivers permission to go ever faster, they vigorously enforced existing limits to slow drivers down.
Adrian Lund is president of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.