History Repeating Itself: NMA E-Newsletter #381

By Gary Biller, NMA President

My indoctrination to NMA affairs was immediate when I joined the organization in July 2009.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, that bastion of the auto insurance industry, had just released a report titled, Long Term Effects of Repealing the National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) in the United States.  The paper declared that approximately 12,500 deaths were caused by letting speed limits climb higher than 55 mph.  Say what?

The claim seemed absurd, even to someone new to the NMSL battle, so I wrote this e-newsletter criticizing the IIHS for reaching conclusions that flew in the face of safety statistics since the speed limit law was repealed.  The questionable methodology and the lack of published data or a meaningful peer review also raised flags.

The IIHS has a history of dusting off the tired meme of “people are dying because of higher speed limits” every few years.  In 1997 it was, Crash Rates Go Up in States That Raised Speed Limits.  Two years later, Motor Vehicle Deaths 15 Percent Higher on Roads in 24 States That Raised Speed Limits.  With cicada-like precision they issued, Faster Travel and the Price We Pay – Deaths Go Up as Limits are Raised, in 2003.

Lest we forget about them, our friends at the Insurance Institute released another breathless study last month that ups the ante to Speed Limit Increases Cause 33,000 Deaths in 20 Years.  The IIHS blended changes in unemployment, the number of potential young drivers, and per capita alcohol consumption into a prediction – stated as fact but clearly a projection of some sort – that tens of thousands of drivers lost their lives due to raised speed limits in the years since the repeal of the NMSL.  This latest national report conveniently excluded nine states that didn’t fit the premise of the IIHS prognostications.

As usual, many media outlets picked up the April 2016 IIHS report of carnage on the nation’s highways due to higher speed limits.  I was invited to comment by CBS National News, and spent 15 minutes on camera questioning the foundation of the “study” and pointing out that fatality rates have been in steady decline since the mid-1990s when states were unshackled from 55 mph limits.  Not surprisingly, the CBS report lent legitimacy to the study by not challenging the conclusions reached while only inserting a few-second soundbite from me noting that our highways are safer than ever.

But here’s the thing.  The driving public, and state transportation officials for that matter, have a history of ignoring IIHS histrionics regarding speed limits.  Motorists know instinctively that speed limits set higher to approximate the natural free-flow of traffic – which is what the repeal of the NMSL set the stage for – allow for smoother, safer travel experiences.

While we still must stand vigilant against the insurance industry’s repeated, unsuccessful attempts to sway public opinion on speed limits – the corporate version of insanity by trying the same thing over and over with the expectation of a different result?* – it is rewarding to know that the driving community has the collective common sense to ignore the scare tactics.


* More likely a matter of keeping the funders of the IIHS, the Allstates and Geicos of the world, happy.

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