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Do Higher Speed Limits Result in More Fatal Crashes?

Posted in Car Accident on October 8, 2019

Speeding is one of the most common causes of serious and fatal accidents. Speeding can increase the seriousness of a motor vehicle collision and related injuries. With these facts in mind, it is easy to conclude higher speed limits would result in more fatal crashes. Find out if research supports this conclusion, and whether California lawmakers will be removing the speed limit on two major highways.

The Dangers of Speeding

Speeding is one of the top factors involved in deadly car accidents in the Golden State. In 2016, 227 fatal and injury accidents in El Cajon alone traced back to speeding. La Mesa had 103 speed-related collisions that caused injuries or deaths the same year. Speeding can refer to either driving past the posted maximum speed limit or driving too fast for conditions. In poor weather, for example, a driver may lawfully need to drive below the posted speed limit if that is reasonable for conditions. Speeding can compromise a driver’s safety in many ways.

  • Limited reaction time
  • Greater potential for losing vehicle control
  • Lesser ability to handle hazards such as potholes
  • Lesser stopping power
  • Minor crashes become major
  • More severe injuries
  • Greater potential for fatal injuries

In 2017, speeding played a role in about 26% of all traffic deaths in the U.S. Around the country, speeding contributed to 9,378 deaths in 2018. Drivers speed for many reasons. Aggressive drivers may speed to get around slower drivers or to make a point. Negligent drivers may speed to make it to their destinations on time. Distracted or drunk drivers may not realize they are speeding. A driver that intentionally speeds does not have any regard for the law or the safety of others.

The Correlation Between Speed Limits and Fatal Crashes

Research from organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has proven higher speed limits correspond with more fatal car accidents. The IIHS found that increased speed limits over the last 20 years have almost canceled out the number of lives frontal airbags have saved. Increased speed limits have cost about 37,000 lives, while airbags have saved around 44,000 people since national organizations began collecting data.

States have increased speed limits from the original federal maximum of 55 miles per hour to as much as 85 miles per hour (in Texas) over the last few decades. Yet studies overwhelmingly show that increased speed limits also raise the number of fatal accidents in the state. A higher speed limit means faster average speeds – and even faster drivers who ignore the speed limits. In an 85-mile-per-hour zone, for example, someone speeding could easily reach 100 miles per hour. Studies from the IIHS have shown that even a 5-mile-per-hour increase in the speed limit can increase the traffic fatality rate by as much as 8%.

A common argument supporting higher speed limits is that drivers speed anyway. While this is true, raising the speed limit means speeding drivers will travel even faster. Someone who is driving 80 miles per hour in a 65 zone, for example, may go 90 miles per hour if the speed limit is 75. This could increase the risk of fatal car accidents. IIHS data shows that the roads where increased speed limits impact safety the most are highways and interstates.

Senate Bill 319: The Push for No Speed Limits

On February 15th, 2019, California lawmakers introduced Senate Bill No. 319: an act to use Germany’s autobahn system on two integral highways: Interstate Route 5 (I-5) and State Route 99 (SR 99). If the bill passed into law, it would eliminate maximum speed limits on these roads. The reasons behind the bill are to reduce traffic congestion and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from idle vehicles. Supporters believe it could save commuters time and help the environment, while those against the bill voice concerns about the risk of more fatal accidents. Eliminating speed limits could lead to excessive speeding and related deaths in California.

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