NMA Email Newsletter: Issue #63

Speeds Are Up, Highway Fatality Rates Are Down

The trend continues. Year after year, the number of U.S. highway deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled declines. There are several reasons for this, of course, including improvements in roadway design, vehicle safety technology, driver education, and emergency roadside medical care. But another factor that can’t be ignored — although some groups try to — is the widespread establishment of higher speed limits that are closer to the 85th percentile goal of traffic engineers. The 85th percentile speed has been proven repeatedly throughout the years to result in a safer, more efficient flow of traffic.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just released its estimate of 2009 highway statistics. Below is a table of the federal government’s fatality data for every fifth year since 1994. The choice of 1994 was not made because it provides even five-year increments to 2009, although that does provide a nice sense of balance. The National Maximum Speed Limit of 55 mph was fully repealed in 1995, making the prior year the last that many states felt an obligation to the feds to hold their speed limits to 55 mph. Interstate speed limits, particularly in rural areas, have been climbing higher ever since.

Year US Traffic Crash Fatalities Fatality Rate per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled Decrease from Previous Period
1994 40,716 1.73
1999 41,717 1.55 10.4%
2004 42,836 1.44 7.1%
2009 33,963 1.16 19.4%

The 2009 fatality rate is the lowest recorded total since 1954, which is when collection of such data began. We couldn’t find 1954 statistics, but the traffic fatalities for 1957 were a whopping 5.98 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. We are, on average, over five times safer now when motoring on U.S. highways, even with the advent of cell phones, texting, and other distractions.

In 1994, twenty-two states still had maximum speed limits of 55 mph. By 2010, nineteen states have interstate speed limits of 70 mph (as soon as Virginia joins the fold July 1st), another twelve states post 75 mph limits, and two states have successfully implemented 80 mph speed zones. While it may be hard to isolate the specific beneficial effect of each of the improvements mentioned in the first paragraph, setting speed limits closer to optimum levels belongs among them.

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