Friday, October 19, 2007

Higher speed limits INCREASE safety?

I couldn't believe my eyes when I came across the above op-ed headline (without the question mark and all caps) when I saw it in a copy of The Reflector, the student newspaper of Mississippi State University. The author, Lazarus Austin, was making the argument that in all cases where speed limits are raised in the US, highway deaths go down. He cited the myth of the German Autobahn, where death rates are supposedly lower than on US interstates, despite no limits on speed in most places. (This is no longer true, as more and more segments of the Autobahn do have posted limits.) He also stated that highway deaths increased when the speed limits across the US were lowered to 55 mph in 1974 following the Arab Oil Embargo. And he didn't fail to trot out the hoary falsehood that insurance companies support lower speed limits to rake in more profits. (After all, those speeding tickets give insurers an excuse to raise premiums.)

There was no way I was going to let this one go by, so I promptly fired off an e-mail to the author:

Mr. Austin,

After I read your editorial with incredulity, I was wondering if you attend Car and Driver College or the University of Motor Trend instead of Mississippi State University. What would you say to the following headlines, "Quitting Smoking Increases Cancer Risk," or "Condom Use Increases Chances of Getting HIV/AIDS?"

I'll have more to say in my blog about your blatant twisting of the facts regarding travel speeds and speed limits. In the meantime, I'd suggest you spend your time reading more authoritative material on highway safety rather than your favorite car enthusiast magazine.

As it turned out, I didn't have to say anything more. Adrian Lund, Ph.D., the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, had sent this response to Mr. Austin, which was published in The Reflector:

It wasn't surprising to read that a young male driver finds speed limits inconvenient ["Higher speed limits increase safety," Oct. 16], but it's unfortunate that someone majoring in history would be so lax with the facts.

The author claims that higher speed limits have led to a decrease in the overall fatality rate. Basing such a claim on the overall death rate on all types of roads makes no sense. Many factors have pushed down the fatality rate over time including safer vehicles and increased safety belt use. Correlating speed limits on some highways to overall traffic death rates on all roads is like using national precipitation figures to measure rainfall amounts from Hurricane Katrina.

You have to look at the specific roads where the speed limits changed to measure the effect. Study after study shows more highway deaths when speed limits are raised.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety research found 400 more deaths in 1989 alone on the roads where the speed limit was raised from 55 to 65 mph.

The author also is ignorant of the facts about the Autobahn. Research shows that from 1975 to 1986, before speed limits on rural interstates in this country began being raised from 55 to 65 mph, the death rate on the Autobahn was higher than on US interstates. Germany also has more stringent laws including a 50-mph speed limit for large trucks and a driving age of 18. Young male drivers have by far the highest crash rates, so perhaps the author would consider raising the driving age to keep the most dangerous drivers in the US off the road.

The bottom line is that safety is compromised, not enhanced, by higher speeds. There are plenty of opinions about speed limits. A discussion about raising them needs to be based on the facts.

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