The good news is that traffic fatalities are lower overall since 1993, largely due to improvements in the safety of vehicles on the road. Unfortunately, they’re still higher than they would have been if states across the nation hadn’t decided to increase their speed limits. Since those speed limits were raised, 36,760 more people have died than would have with the lower speed limits.
This is the conclusion of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit that is partly funded by car insurers that researches and provides policy recommendations on how to reduce motor vehicle wrecks. According to a new study by the group, fatal crashes increase by 8.5 percent for every 5-mph increase in the highway speed limit.
When considering this data, it’s important to remember that Congress abolished the national 55-mph speed limit in 1995. Since then, states have been free to set their own highway speeds, and many have raised them substantially:
- 41 states have raised highway speed limits to 70 or above
- 7 states have raised some highway speed limits to 80 or even 85
- 6 states have increased their highway speed limits since 2013
The IIHS researchers looked at federal traffic fatality data from 1993 to 2017 and controlled for several factors: the percentage of drivers who were young and inexperienced, whether seat belts were used and unemployment. When those factors were excluded, the researchers estimated that 36,760 more people were killed in crashes than would have been with lower speed limits.
Let’s get a sense of what that means. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,133 people were killed in fatal motor vehicle accidents in 2017, the latest year for which data is available. In other words, a full year’s worth of extra fatalities occurred between 1993 and 2017.
The one-year total is an estimated 1,900 extra lives lost due to increased speed limits. That’s nearly 2,000 people who might not have died if the highway speed limit were still 55 mph.
How much time do you actually save by going 5 mph faster?
Ultimately, the decision to raise or lower speed limits is a policy choice. Many people feel they can drive safely at 70, 80 or even 85 mph, assuming that all traffic is going that speed. Many people find themselves frustrated by a 55-mph pace. Most people just want to get where they’re going in the fastest way possible.
However, the study’s author points out that incremental increases in the speed limit don’t actually result in much less time on the road. On a 100-mile trip, going 70 instead of 65 will save you six and a half minutes at most.
Meanwhile, the savings in terms of lives, injuries and property damage would appear to be substantial, based on this research.
Could you react in time to stop a crash?
It’s not always a matter of whether you personally have the skill to drive safely at a high speed. For you to be safe, you have to have the ability to predict and react to an emergency situation without losing control. You have to consider other people’s bad driving, distraction, intoxication and the like. At 70 or 85 mph, you simply may not be able to drive your way out of a collision when someone else makes a mistake.
What do you think? If it could save nearly 2,000 lives a year, would you support reducing the highway speed limit back to 55? If not, what speed would you support?