October 6, 1996 in Features

The Great American Road Race With New, Higher Speed Limit Laws On The Books In Most States, Americans Are Driving Faster Than Ever Before

Graham Vink Correspondent
 

Tum, tum, te-tum … WHOOSH … tum, tum-te … WHOOSH, WHOOSH … tum … WHOOSH … tum te-tum.

So much for a bucolic drive through the cornfields of Iowa.

This is Interstate 80, America’s main east-west route, a 2,934-mile ribbon of asphalt and potholes linking New York and San Francisco. This is where the big trucks come … and the speed limit goes.

To drive here at much less than 80 miles per hour, even though the limit is 65, is to be a minnow trying to swim with the sharks.

I’ve driven across the country twice in the past four months, and I’m here to report that most states haven’t just raised speed limits, they’ve almost forgotten them.

Montana … in two trips, I saw one cop. South Dakota … two trips, one cop. Wyoming and Minnesota … no cops. Idaho … some cops, but the speed limit on I-90 changes so often that even the cops can’t remember it.

So whether the limit is “reasonable and prudent” (Montana), 75 mph (Wyoming, South Dakota), 65 (Iowa) or 55 (improbable but true in New Jersey), the result is the same: Most traffic is doing 70 to 80 mph.

Ten months ago, on Dec. 8, 1995, federal legislation took effect that eliminated the national 65 mph speed limit. Some states, notably Montana and Nevada, immediately raised their limits. Others waited until earlier this year.

And while there’s debate over whether higher speeds result in more accidents, there is no argument that a crash at 80 is more dangerous than a crash at 55.

“What’s particularly alarming is that drivers on congested urban roads increasingly are traveling faster than these roads were designed to handle safely,” says Allan Williams, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In the first six months after speed limits were raised, the institute sampled speed limits on several state highways and interstates in California and Texas. On one urban stretch of Texas highway near Houston, 40 percent of the drivers were exceeding the new 70 mph speed limit. In California, along a highway near Riverside, one third of all drivers were traveling faster than 70, even though the limit was 65. And at both the California and Texas sites, 10 percent of drivers were going faster than 75.

To nobody’s surprise, the state where drivers are really putting pedal to metal is Montana, where the daytime limit is described by state law only as “reasonable and prudent.”

In August, the institute sampled traffic speeds at four rural locations along interstates near Butte and Helena. The average speed for cars was 74 mph.

But the average is misleading. Traffic engineers say a better statistical indication of speed is a number called the “85th percentile,” the speed at which 85 percent of motorists are driving at or below.

At those Montana sites tested, the 85th percentile figure for cars was 81 mph. The figure for trucks was 79, even though Montana’s truck speed limit remains 65.

Also, the institute discovered that one in five Montana auto drivers and one in 10 truck drivers were driving faster than 80 mph.

Montana has a long history of wide-open roads, but similar driving behavior is becoming apparent in other states.

During sampling this past summer, the 85th percentile speed recorded in Nevada was 80 (the limit is 75). The 85th percentile speed in New Mexico was 77 (the limit is 75), and almost one in three motorists were driving above the limit.

“Speeds went up and stayed up,” says Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer for the insurance institute. “The results pretty much speak for themselves.”

The results are just fine with Andy Warner, a Vanderbilt University student who maintains a “speed trap registry” on the World Wide Web. The registry lists hundreds of speed traps around the nation, contributed by thousands of motorists (in an average week, more than 10,000 people visit the Web site).

“For the most part, people are much happier to see the limits going up,” Warner said in a telephone interview. “Preliminary data indicate that accidents haven’t been affected.

“You’re getting closer to the 85th percentile speed for everybody; you’re not having people dawdling in the right lane at 55.

“On the highway, when there’s not an obstruction, most accidents are caused by a difference in speeds, somebody merging, people blocking a lane. If everybody’s going the same speed, it’s really quite difficult to have an accident if you’re paying attention.”

Warner, 21, admits that he speeds. But he says he goes no faster than prevailing traffic, and he insists the registry is to help drivers slow down, not to evade the law. (Warner refuses to list the location of sobriety checkpoints because “I am not going to make it easier for drunk drivers.”) Washington and Idaho officials say it’s too soon to know whether higher limits - up to 70 in Washington, up to 75 in Idaho - will make a difference in accidents or fatalities. An Idaho State Police officer in Boise said no major problems had surfaced so far with the new limit.

In Washington state, “nothing has really piqued our attention as far as the accident picture or the crash picture,” says Lt. Ron O’Gwin, a Washington State Patrol spokesman in Olympia. (Drivers making the Spokane-Seattle run will be interested to learn, however, that on stretches of I-90 west of Spokane, a recent 85th percentile speed was 74 mph, meaning 15 percent of motorists were going faster than that.)

Rick Olson, communications director for the Washington Department of Transportation, says it’s “too early to tell” if the higher speeds will result in more accidents, adding that “most people drive at safe speeds.”

One area of concern to authorities is “speed creep” - the idea that higher limits encourage speeds above those new limits.

“The proportion of the driving public that was inclined to press the limit anyway will use this as an excuse to set their cruise control 5 miles per hour higher,” says Olson.

“The problem with increasing speed limits, even on rural interstates, is that you see a rollover effect with people going faster on side streets and highways,” agrees Cathy Hickey, manager of public affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a lobbying group funded by the insurance industry, which opposed raising the limits.

Olson said the Washington Department of Transportation encountered a surprising sentiment when it asked for public comments on raising limits to 70 in some areas.

“A lot of people said, ‘Hey, raise the speed limits but enforce them.’ The chief of the patrol has been quite articulate on the subject and has firmly said we will be enforcing them.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Charles Waltmire

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. THE STORY OF SPEED 1974 - Congress establishes a national 55 mph to save energy after gas shortages. 1987 - The law is revised to let states increase limits on certain rural stretches of interstate highways to 65 mph; the 55 maximum is retained for all other roads. That year, 38 states raise speed limits. 1988 - Two more states raise speed limits. 1995 - Congress passes legislation ending national regulation of speed limits, effective Dec. 8. Many states in the West adopt 75 mph limits on rural parts of interstates. Montana adopts a “reasonable and prudent” standard for daytime auto driving. 1996 - At least 20 states raise speed limits. Source: U.S. Department of Transportation; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

2. OBSERVATIONS FROM THE ROAD Miscellaneous tidbits gleaned from two trips between Spokane and Washington, D.C., this summer: Best state for speed: Montana. The state’s “reasonable and prudent” speed standard translates to “pretty darn fast,” but watch out for those mountain curves. Andy Warner, who maintains a national speed trap registry, says he heard from a Lotus driver who passed an officer at 140 miles per hour, “and the cop didn’t blink.” Best state for conspicuous lack of troopers: Wyoming. The speed limit is 75, but there doesn’t seem to be much enforcement. Watch out for deer at twilight, though. Ugliest display of billboards: South Dakota, where you learn many times, hundreds of miles in advance, that you’re approaching the Mitchell Corn Palace or Wall Drug. Best place in which to break down at 11 p.m. while driving a 33-year-old British sports car and be forced to flag down a truck while waving a flashlight on the shoulder: southeast Iowa. The AAA tow truck driver was helpful, too. So were Corky and Naomi at British Auto Shoppe in Silvis, Ill. Worst left-lane bandits (slower drivers who defy state law and won’t move right): Tie, Interstate 90 from Spokane city limits to the Idaho border (though this is hardly news), and I-71 through Ohio between Cincinnati and Columbus. Cheapest gas: Becks Express, Galesburg, Ill., $1.17 per gallon for regular. Most expensive gas: Elm Grove Exxon, Wheeling, W.Va, $1.44 per gallon for regular. Worst road on which you have to pay a toll for the privilege of driving: Pennsylvania Turnpike. Ugly, long, boring, poorly designed, badly maintained … and heavily patrolled. Most unlikely place to discover all the motels full on a Saturday night: Rapid City, S.D. Rudest, most inconsiderate drivers: Washington, D.C., area. However, this survey does not include New York-New Jersey, which otherwise would be a strong contender. Most intimidating truckers: I-80, anywhere. If you don’t drive at their speeds, you’ll be squashed like a bug, or so you feel. Most courteous drivers: South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, especially the older Iowa gentleman who stopped at the site of a minibreakdown to ask if he could help. Graham Vink

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. THE STORY OF SPEED 1974 - Congress establishes a national 55 mph to save energy after gas shortages. 1987 - The law is revised to let states increase limits on certain rural stretches of interstate highways to 65 mph; the 55 maximum is retained for all other roads. That year, 38 states raise speed limits. 1988 - Two more states raise speed limits. 1995 - Congress passes legislation ending national regulation of speed limits, effective Dec. 8. Many states in the West adopt 75 mph limits on rural parts of interstates. Montana adopts a “reasonable and prudent” standard for daytime auto driving. 1996 - At least 20 states raise speed limits. Source: U.S. Department of Transportation; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

2. OBSERVATIONS FROM THE ROAD Miscellaneous tidbits gleaned from two trips between Spokane and Washington, D.C., this summer: Best state for speed: Montana. The state’s “reasonable and prudent” speed standard translates to “pretty darn fast,” but watch out for those mountain curves. Andy Warner, who maintains a national speed trap registry, says he heard from a Lotus driver who passed an officer at 140 miles per hour, “and the cop didn’t blink.” Best state for conspicuous lack of troopers: Wyoming. The speed limit is 75, but there doesn’t seem to be much enforcement. Watch out for deer at twilight, though. Ugliest display of billboards: South Dakota, where you learn many times, hundreds of miles in advance, that you’re approaching the Mitchell Corn Palace or Wall Drug. Best place in which to break down at 11 p.m. while driving a 33-year-old British sports car and be forced to flag down a truck while waving a flashlight on the shoulder: southeast Iowa. The AAA tow truck driver was helpful, too. So were Corky and Naomi at British Auto Shoppe in Silvis, Ill. Worst left-lane bandits (slower drivers who defy state law and won’t move right): Tie, Interstate 90 from Spokane city limits to the Idaho border (though this is hardly news), and I-71 through Ohio between Cincinnati and Columbus. Cheapest gas: Becks Express, Galesburg, Ill., $1.17 per gallon for regular. Most expensive gas: Elm Grove Exxon, Wheeling, W.Va, $1.44 per gallon for regular. Worst road on which you have to pay a toll for the privilege of driving: Pennsylvania Turnpike. Ugly, long, boring, poorly designed, badly maintained … and heavily patrolled. Most unlikely place to discover all the motels full on a Saturday night: Rapid City, S.D. Rudest, most inconsiderate drivers: Washington, D.C., area. However, this survey does not include New York-New Jersey, which otherwise would be a strong contender. Most intimidating truckers: I-80, anywhere. If you don’t drive at their speeds, you’ll be squashed like a bug, or so you feel. Most courteous drivers: South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, especially the older Iowa gentleman who stopped at the site of a minibreakdown to ask if he could help. Graham Vink


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