Editorial: Full speed ahead?

  • Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2013 12:20 a.m.

Despite what you may have heard, the state legislature isn’t about to give lead foots a free pass by raising the maximum speed limit in North Carolina. A bill making its way through the General Assembly would leave that decision to state transportation officials, as should be the case.

The bill approved in the Senate and cruising through the House would give the NCDOT authority to lift the top legal speed from 70 to 75 mph on some interstates and limited-access highways. Supporters of the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Neal Hunt (R-Raleigh), contend that limited access highways in low-congestion areas are designed to handle those speeds. Besides, many drivers are already driving that fast — in fact, anyone driving 70 on the interstate had better be in the slow lane.

That raises the obvious question: If drivers are already going 75 mph or faster with a 70-mph limit, how fast will traffic — especially commercial truckers — be traveling if the maximum is raised to 75?

Safety should be the primary consideration. But here you’ll find conflicting views, even among the experts. AAA Carolinas, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill think it’s a bad idea, one that potentially will raise accident rates and increase the severity of crashes. When the 55 mph mandate was repealed back in the mid-1990s, accident rates did rise in several states. But going from 55 to 65 is a bigger jump than going from 70 to 75. At least 16 other states have already raised their limits to 75 — and Texas even has a few roads with an 85-mph limit. After Indiana raised its interstate limit from 65 mph to 70 mph in 2005, Perdue University researchers studied accident patterns in subsequent years and didn’t find an increase in the fatality or serious injury rate.

It’s likely this measure will pass, and the next step will be up to the NCDOT. It should proceed with caution, implementing any changes on a limited basis until the longer term impact of higher speed limits is clear. It may be that some rural interstates or limited-access highways can handle an additional 5 mph without raising accident rates. Both highway and vehicular safety standards have inproved substantially since the 70 mph maximum was imposed in 1996. Unfortunately, we see no evidence of a corresponding advancement in motorists’ judgment. On the majority of our highways, the existing speed limits are already high enough — and all too often ignored.

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