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The Connection Between Speed Limits and Car Accidents

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It’s no secret that speed limits are getting faster—much faster. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), speed limits are designed to reflect the maximum rate of speed that drivers can legally go under ideal conditions. However, when faced with traffic, construction, poor weather, or other adverse conditions, drivers should adjust their speed accordingly. Unfortunately, many drivers view the speed limit as the minimum speed, and go at least 5 MPH over the speed limit, regardless of road conditions.

A new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study found that increases in speed limit over two decades have cost 33,000 lives in the U.S. In 2013 alone, the speed limit increases resulted in 1,900 additional deaths, essentially canceling out the number of lives saved by frontal airbags that same year.

In 1974, a National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) of 55 MPH was set to conserve fuel. However, in 1987, Congress allowed states to set speed limits at 65 MPH on interstate roads in areas with fewer than 50,000 people.

Finally, in 1995, Congress repealed the NMSL, allowing states to set their own speed limits. Since then, speed limits have been on the rise.

While IIHS’s study believes that higher speed limits cause more accidents, others believe that higher speed limits simply cause more severe accidents. In fact, accidents that occur at high speeds are more often fatal. So while there is a direct connection between freeway deaths and freeway speed limits, some believe that raised speed limits do not inflate the total number of collisions.

In that school of thought, most follow studies that show drivers rarely overshoot their speed comfort zones, even if they are legally permitted. They also believe that IIHS’s study fails to take into account that the number of miles driven has gone up as the economy continues to rebound, and gas prices are low. Additionally, according to census statistics, older drivers are staying on the road longer than they once were, putting more drivers on the road.

While this all may be true, IIHS’s study cannot be ignored. With a higher maximum speed limit, individuals are going anywhere from 5-15 MPH over the limit. And the reckless driving doesn’t stop there. Self-professed speeders say they often drive 15 MPH over the limit on freeways, and also admit to passing other cars, keeping up with fast traffic, and are more likely to not wear their seat belt and to use a cell phone while driving.

In June 2015, Wisconsin switched their speed limit to 70 MPH on interstate highways. In the 12 months following that change, fatalities rose 37% on the interstate, injuries increased by 11%, and the total number of accidents rose 12%, giving merit to the study done by IIHS.

Six states in the U.S. have speed limits of 80 MPH, and in Texas, drivers can drive 85 MPH on highways. So what can be done? IIHS hopes that the outcome of their study brings to light the deadly consequences of higher speeds, and hopes states will keep this in mind when considering a speed limit increase.

For all of us, this can serve as a reminder to follow the speed limit set in place, and avoid reckless driving habits in the hopes of saving lives.