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Speed still kills

At its core, the business of setting highway speed limits is about striking a balance between convenience, a goal served by allowing traffic to move as quickly as possible, and safety, which argues for slower speeds. Just because roads and vehicles are capable of sustaining 70, 80 or 90 mile per hour traffic doesn't mean it would be wise to allow it.

Last week, the state Senate voted 39-7 to give the State Highway Administration authority to set a maximum speed limit of 70 miles per hour on interstate and expressway highways, up from the current 65 mph limit. Amazingly, just seven members of the upper chamber were willing to side with safety over convenience and oppose the bill.

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Here's what is at stake in this debate: On the one hand, setting a speed limit 5 mph faster will get drivers to their destinations slightly faster. In one of the longest stretches of interstate likely to be considered for that designation — Interstate 68 in Western Maryland — motorists would be able to get from Friendsville to Cumberland in about 35 minutes instead of the current 38.

On the other hand, raising the speed limits means that people on highways like I-68 will go faster — more will push the accelerator to 75 or 80 mph or higher — and that will lead to more accidents and more fatalities. That's not mere conjecture but what studies have shown over and over again as states have raised speed limits since 1995 when the national maximum speed limit was repealed. Traffic may move faster, but speeding always worsens, too.

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We know how hurried motorists will respond to this safety argument. Bah, they will say, why don't you just set a 5 mile per hour maximum and the only deaths will be attributed to boredom? But taking the point to extremes ignores the inherent reasonableness of setting speed limits — no one wants highways to turn into rolling sets for "Mad Max" either. This still remains a decision about balancing competing objectives.

And make no mistake, speed kills. Slightly less than one third of all traffic-related deaths involve speed-related crashes. That translates to about 10,000 a year. The reasons are as simple as basic physics — higher speeds give drivers less time to make an emergency maneuver, greater braking distances are required and crash energy rises exponentially. Maryland is no stranger to this problem as speed was involved in 39.4 percent of fatal crashes, about 44 percent of which took place on interstates and other high-speed roads.

In approving the new limits, senators can correctly claim that they are merely following the lead of surrounding states. Today, 38 states have a maximum speed limit of 70 mph and that includes Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. There are some states that have set it even higher; Texas recently unveiled a section of highway with an 85 mph speed limit.

But here's where we should part company with our neighbors. Maryland is a small state, and the benefits of an extra 5 mph are equally diminutive. What is so urgent in Western Maryland that the 3-minute savings is worth the cost in injuries and deaths? It would be one thing if Maryland was Montana and hundreds of miles of deserted blacktop beckoned, but it isn't, and it's not just the individual assuming greater risk, it's all others traveling on the same roads.

Call us fuddy duddies, nanny staters or any of the other insults that the teen-drivers-at-heart like to throw around, but we just don't see the trade-off. If the speed limit were raised to 70 mph and strictly enforced at that level, at least the argument could be made that the impact would be negligible. But, of course, it won't happen that way. Instead, some motorists will see 70 mph as a minimum and push the envelope higher and the highways will see as much variation in speed (another common factor in accidents) as they do now.

Delaware doesn't allow 70 mph highways, and Maryland should not either. There simply isn't sufficient upside to balance against the risks associated with higher speeds. Sorry, but a need to be consistent with West Virginia or Pennsylvania isn't much of an argument. And if that causes Maryland to develop a reputation for safety (or fuel economy or a desire to lower carbon emissions for that matter)? Well, that sounds pretty good to us.

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