State officials are taking a huge gamble. They believe that motorists who have been driving nearly 65 miles an hour on rural interstate highways in Maryland in violation of the law will stick to that speed now that it is the legal limit. That hasn't been the experience in other states.
Some of the statistics being used to justify Gov. Parris Glendening's insistence on raising the speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph today on 265 miles of highway are suspect. A statement from the governor's office quotes his transportation secretary, David L. Winstead, as saying the number of fatalities in states with 65 mph limits has been stable since 1990. That's more or less true. But what it doesn't say is that, according to a federal study, fatalities have increased about 30 percent on the specific highways with the higher speed limit.
And the available evidence indicates motorists do go faster when the speed limit is increased. In the federal study, which unfortunately uses data that are five years old but the latest available, average speeds on the highways with the higher limits rose from 60 mph -- 5 mph over the limit -- to 64 mph after it was raised. The percentage of drivers exceeding 70 mph tripled. According to the state's own figures, Maryland drivers are already driving 65 mph on rural interstates. That doesn't leave us confident it will remain at that level.
True, rural interstates are the safest roads to drive. Traffic volumes are rising on them faster than fatalities are increasing. But as the popularity of the rural interstates rises, they become more like the urban and suburban freeways where 65 mph is deemed unsafe. Accidents at higher speeds are demonstrably more dangerous than at lower velocities. The federal study said the chances of a collision are higher with the increased speeds and so is the risk of getting killed.
To offset this, Mr. Glendening and his aides have announced a strict enforcement policy. Drivers, they say, will be ticketed for going one mile over the limit. We applaud that. But the Maryland State Police have announced crackdowns before -- usually, as now, just prior to a major holiday -- that haven't lasted long. The $50,000 in overtime pay won't go far. Having mistakenly raised the speed limit, the onus is on the governor to keep the pressure on speeders permanently. The success of the state police effort will be found in Maryland's emergency rooms and mortuaries.