Three Reasons Unrealistic Speed Limits Are Dangerous

By Connor Adkins, Guest Columnist

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has long been a proponent of the axiom, “Speed Kills.” However, when this mantra is put to scrutiny, it doesn’t hold up. Yes, speed is a factor in many collisions and automobile accidents resulting in fatal injury. But the fact remains that speed is only one of many possible contributors to an accident and cannot be solely blamed.

For example, if someone driving at 35 mph (in a 30 mph zone) in the winter hits black ice and swerves into a tree, you wouldn’t say that their speed was the only culprit—the black ice probably had a big role too. But it does mean that they were driving too fast for current conditions. This would be true whether the limit was 55 mph or 25 mph.

Similarly, other safety concerns, such as drunk driving, drowsy driving, or distracted driving, are arguably more dangerous than the rate at which you are moving.

Though speed limits are put in place to promote safety on the roads, the irony is that oftentimes these regulations have the opposite effect. Sounds backwards, I know. But to catch you up to speed, here are three reasons unrealistic speed limits are dangerous.

1. The limits are often arbitrary

In the 1970s, the United States instituted federal speed limits under the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which prohibited speed limits above 55 mph. This law was passed not as a safety measure but in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Lawmakers sought to limit gas consumption in vehicles by reducing highway speeds.

Though the law was repealed in 1995, returning speed limit determination to the states, the majority of states remained at or below pre-1974 speed limitations. Rather than setting limits based on road conditions and traffic patterns, most states impose speed limits at arbitrarily conservative rates. They attribute a decrease in fatal collisions over the past few decades to the lowered speed limit—in spite of the simultaneous strides made in the auto industry to make new cars safer.

But this means that most speed limits do not reflect the conditions of the roads. While the intent is to reduce fatal injuries and collisions, setting rates without considering the roads themselves actually increases risks for accidents and traffic tickets.

When speeds do not reflect road conditions, safe driving decreases and accidents increase. This is because motorists will typically drive at rates they deem safe and appropriate, rather than following an inappropriate or unrealistic limit. This leads to differences in speeds among motorists and poorer driving etiquette.

2. Unreasonable speed limits deemphasize positive motorist behavior

In the late 1990s, Montana’s interstate highways enjoyed no daytime speed limits or enforceable speed laws. During this period, fatal accident rates were at an all-time low. However, lawmakers passed legislation that imposed artificially slow speed limits and full enforcement.

Though the measures were put in place as part of a new federally funded safety program, the results were less than satisfying. The number of fatal accidents on the interstate more than doubled after the limits were set.

One of the main reasons for this result is that speed limits deemphasize positive motorist behavior. When no limit is posted, motorists will typically drive at reasonable speeds based on the current road and traffic conditions. Drivers tend to be more courteous and safety conscious—wearing seat belts and exercising due caution in multiple lane highways—when there is no standard regulation.

Yet, once a limit is posted, drivers tend to relax their guard and rely on speed limits to enforce safe driving. This behavior is reflected in the data that show that before the regulations, Montana’s seat belt use was above the national average and fatal accidents were at a modern low.

However, following the legislation, fatal accidents reached a modern high and there was an increase in flow conflict accidents (due to decreased courtesy on the road). Thus, it is clear that speed limits (when not reflective of road conditions) take the perceived responsibility of driving safety off the motorist, increasing dangerous driving habits and resulting accidents.

3. Unrealistic limits increase speed differentials

No matter what road you are on, there will be some degree of speed variation among drivers. Some people naturally drive faster or slower than others. However, when unrealistic speed limits (i.e. those that do not reflect road conditions and regular traffic patterns) are imposed, these speed differentials in traffic tend to increase.

When the speed limits reflect the safety and conditions of the road, motorists tend to drive at a speed safe for the current conditions and traffic patterns. But when arbitrary limits are set, this is actually more dangerous, because many people will continue to drive at speeds well below the limit and others will be tempted to drive 10-20mph above that speed—knowing that they are unlikely to be ticketed unless their speed is “excessive.”

With properly set speed limits, drivers won’t try to “tempt fate,” as it were, but rather gauge the appropriate and safe rate of travel based on the flow of traffic, visibility, road and weather conditions, and personal comfort. This reaction leads to safer roads for everyone when unrealistic or arbitrary speed limits are removed, and reasonable standards are put in place.

While speed certainly plays a role in automobile accidents, it is unfair and unwise to attribute blame to speed alone. Imposing arbitrary and artificially slow speed limits will not necessarily increase safety or decrease “speed-related accidents.” Rather, the evidence suggests that speed limits that reflect the road conditions and traffic flow patterns promote safe driving more effectively than those that do not.

Connor Adkins enjoys helping people stay fit and healthy. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three children.

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