Déjà vu All Over Again – Safer at 55 mph?
By Gary Biller, NMA Executive Director
A number of media outlets are picking up a story, titled “Long-Term Effects of Repealing the National Maximum Speed Limit in the United States,” that was released in mid-July of this year and will be published in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The lead author of the study is Lee Friedman, an assistant research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
The research purports to study the impact of repealing the National Maximum Speed Law on road fatalities and injuries in fatal crashes between 1995 and 2005. The NMSL set a 55 mph limit on all interstate roads in the U.S., and was enforced between 1974 and its dissolution in 1995. Actually, the NMSL was modified in 1987 to allow states to raise interstate speed limits to 65 mph in some areas. Since 1995, states have been able to establish their own speed limits.
Per Friedman, “The primary finding of our study was that over the 10-year period following the repeal of National Maximum Speed Law, there were approximately 12,500 deaths due to the increased speed limits across the U.S.”
The UIC researchers conclude that the national policy regarding speed limits and road safety should be reevaluated, with an eye toward reducing speed limits and improving enforcement with traffic cameras.
Should we turn back the calendars to pre-1995, even pre-1987, times so that, in theory, thousands of unnecessary traffic fatalities can be avoided?
It was on this very NMSL issue that the National Motorists Association was founded, coalescing the efforts of thousands of members to eventually repeal the federal speed limit restriction. The feeling of déjà vu is strong for me. Although I only recently joined the staff of the NMA, I’ve read the association’s newsletters dating from 1982 to the 1995 repeal of the NMSL, and I have an odd feeling that I’m caught in a time warp.
The UIC study focuses on highway safety and traffic fatalities due to post-NMSL speed limits. So my first step was to look at some government statistics, which exist in great abundance. Specifically, I visited the websites of the National Highway Traffic System Administration and the Federal Highway Administration.
The NHTSA has established the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS); at this link, you’ll find the following data:
U.S. Highway Fatalities per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled
The fatality rate has steadily dropped over this period to reach its lowest total in 2008. As another benchmark, the national highway deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1980 was 3.35. In other words, traffic fatalities have dropped by 62% in less than 30 years. Technological advances in vehicle safety, as well as other factors such as highway improvements, over the years play a large role in the reduction of highway deaths.
But back to the 55 mph speed limit proponents. Here is a quote from the Federal Highway Administration on their Speed Management page:
Speeding is a safety concern on all roads, regardless of their speed limits. Much of the public concern about speeding has been focused on high-speed Interstates. The Interstate System, however, actually has the best safety record of all roads and the lowest fatality rate of all road classes. Almost 50 percent of speeding-related fatalities occur on lower speed collector and local roads, which carry only 27.9 percent of the total vehicle miles traveled in the United States. Collector roads usually have legal speed limits of 55 mi/h or less. Speed limits on local roads are often 35 mi/h or lower.
The safety goal, as the NMA has continuously endorsed, should continue to be setting speed limits at the 85th percentile, and designing the roadways and intersections to allow for smooth traffic flow.
Lowering the current speed limits on the nation’s interstate system to reduce fatalities is unrealistic, not only because the government data and analysis don’t support that conclusion, but who among us expects the driving public to slow down to 55 mph when they know they can drive safely and appropriately at much higher speeds on the nation’s highways?