Slow down, you’re movin’ too fast:
Highway traffic deaths creep upward

Has the death of the Federal speed limit contributed to a rise in highway traffic fatalities? Perhaps, although it may be too soon to make the conclusion, according to officials of the American Automobile Association and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A survey by The Associated Press recently found that since the Federal Government permitted states to raise highway speed limits late last year, traffic deaths have risen in at least eight of the states that raised speed limits from the former nationwide cap of 55 mph and 65 mph on rural Interstates.

Highway death rates have increased in Alabama, California, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas, where traffic deaths jumped 17 percent or an average of 40 more per month  since the state began raising highway speed limits last Dec. 8. If the trend continues, 3,600 will be killed in auto accidents this year in Texas, making the death toll the highest since 1985.

In Oklahoma, speed is said to have been a factor in 30 percent to 33 percent of traffic deaths last year, up from 20 percent before the end of the Federal speed limit. Still, officials aren’t ready to blame rising highway speeds for the jump, saying more time is needed to analyze the data.

Adding to the cause-and-effect confusion is the finding that fewer highway fatalities have been recorded in some states that raised speed limits, including Florida Massachusetts, Montana and Utah.

As of Sept. 30, Montana counted 152 traffic fatalities, down from 165 for the same period in 1995. With the end of the Federal cap, the state reverted to its “reasonable and prudent” daytime speed limit. For about 85 percent of the state’s drivers, average speeds reach about 75 mph on interstates and 65 mph on two-lane highways, said NHTSA administrator Al Goke. The other 15 percent often drive at speeds of up to 100 mph, he told The AP.

The National Safety Council recently suggested that intoxicated drivers were to blame for the increase in highway deaths. The council reported Oct. 9 that traffic deaths rose 2.8 percent, to 43,900, in 1995  the third consecutive year that traffic fatalities have increased after reaching an all-time low of 40,982 in 1992. The worst year was 1972, when 56,278 fatalities were recorded, according to the council.

Alcohol-related fatalities rose to 17,274 in 1995 from 16,589 in 1994, according to the NSC. The worst-ever year was 1986 when 24,045 alcohol-related highway deaths occurred. “We are seeing, for the first time, a remarkable reversal of the progress since the 1980s,” said Jerry Scannell, the council’s president.

The council did not try to gauge the effect of higher speed limits on the traffic fatality rate, but it maintains that the risk of fatal injury roughly doubles for each 10 miles per hour of additional speed over 50 mph.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.