Would Highways Be Safer With No Speed Limits?

Traffic law, Bizarre, Crime, NakedLaw

Without speed limits, your morning commute would surely look like something out of post-apocalyptic “Road Warrior,” or maybe Steven McQueen in “Bullitt” tearing through the streets of San Francisco with no regard for life, limb or personal property, right?

Obviously we must have safeguards in place to guarantee our safety as we navigate the treacherous highways of suburban America, Starbucks cup in one hand, cell phone in the other, and the wheel firmly tucked between our knees. Speed kills!

Or does it?

Who decides how fast we should go?

President Nixon signed the National Maximum Speed Law in 1974, establishing a maximum speed limit of  55 miles per hour on the nation’s highways and ensuring Sammy Hagar’s place in pop culture history. The law was not due to safety concerns, but in response to the oil crisis.

Prior to this national legislation, states controlled speed limits on their roadways, with limits up to 80 miles per hour in some states and no limits at all posted on some rural roads. The national limit was raised to 65 mph on certain roads in 1987; in 1995 Congress repealed the law and gave control over speed limits back to the states.

I can’t drive 55

When the national speed limit increased from 55 to 65 mph, the Center for Auto Safety predicted the death rate on the nation’s highways would rise; instead deaths per million miles driven hit a record low in 1997.

And a 2001 study by the National Motorists Association found, in contrast to conventional wisdom, Montana’s interstate highways were safest during a period when there were no daytime speed limits in effect. Studies seem to show that in general, increasing speed limits doesn’t result in a correlating increase in traffic fatalities.

Proponents of faster or more lax speed limits argue that traffic engineering studies should determine safe limits based on how fast traffic on a given stretch of road already travels, regardless of the posted speed. Fewer drivers passing other vehicles (and presumably fewer hands making obscene gestures instead of on the wheel of the car)  equals fewer accidents.

Traffic engineers cite the following factors in making sensible speed limit determinations.

  • Prevailing speed. This is the speed at which most drivers feel comfortable traveling on a given stretch of road, regardless of the speed limit. In Michigan, prevailing speed didn’t really change even when the posted speed did. In one case where the limit was raised from 55 mph to 70 mph, the prevailing speed actually dropped from 73 mph to 72 mph.
  • The 85th percentile. This is the speed that 85 percent of drivers at or near, regardless of the posted limit. The Michigan State Police has pegged this as the optimum limit in order to reduce speed variance.
  • Lowest speed variance. The sweet spot where the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers is smallest. Studies show that the number of crashes drop as speed levels even out.

What about the Autobahn?

The Autobahnen, in Germany, are perhaps the most famous public roadways without blanket speed limits. However, they’re not completely unregulated; buses, certain classes of semi-trucks, and vehicles pulling trailers are subject to speed limits based on vehicle weight. Speed limits also apply under certain road conditions, constructions, or local regulations.  Otherwise, motorized vehicles traveling Germany’s 7000-plus miles of national highway have an advisory limit of 130 kilometers (about 81 miles) per hour.

And yet it seems relatively safe to drive in Germany. According to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, in 2008  Germany averaged 5.5 fatalities from auto-related accidents for every 100,000 drivers. The U.S. rate for the same year was double that, at over 12 people killed for every 100,000 drivers.

There are a variety of reasons the Autobahn seems considerably safer than American highways; for one, it’s designed for high-speed, unimpeded traffic flow. Unmarked police cars patrol the roadways, and cameras record traffic violations such as tailgating or passing on the right. And when a driver is in an auto accident at greater than 130 kph, car insurance costs skyrocket.

Take It Slow

The other side of the argument cites increased traffic incidents and fatalities on specific roads where speed limits have been raised. While statistics depend on such a variety of factors it’s nearly impossible to compare apples to apples,  traffic safety experts cite the following consequences of higher rates of speed:

  • Longer stopping distances. There are many factors that go into calculations of braking time as related to distance, but basic physics is hard to deny: the faster you’re going, the longer it will take you to stop.
  • Decreased response time. Again, how long it takes a driver to recognize and respond to an emergency depends on a multitude of factors, but if it takes one second to realize the emergency and another second to take action, at 85 mph the car will have traveled 249 before the driver reacts. At 65 mph that distance traveled before response is 190 feet.