Speed Limits and Safety

January 06, 1988

Highway design and not speed limits are responsible for the "blood on the highways."

Your editorial states that rural highway deaths are up 50% because the "meddling Congress" permitted 22 Western states to increase the speed limits from 55 to 65 m.p.h. on some rural roads that are not part of the interstate system. You further state that "it doesn't take a radar gun or a degree in medicine to know that the higher the speed the higher the odds of severe injury or death . . . . "

Approximately 80% of the motor-vehicle fatalities occur at speeds of under 40 m.p.h. Approximately 50% of the miles driven are driven on highways and freeways designed for speeds greater than 40 m.p.h. If these two statements are true, then it is reasonable to conclude that it is "four times safer" to drive on highways.

Conversely our neighborhood or city streets that largely restrict speeds to less than 40 m.p.h. are apparently four times more deadly than the higher-speed freeways.

You don't need a "radar gun or a degree in medicine to know that" speeds of 70 to 85 m.p.h. on a well-designed divided highway are safer than speeds of only 35 to 45 m.p.h. on city streets with only 12-inch-wide double yellow lines to prevent head-on collision at impact speeds of 70 to 90 m.p.h.

Only twice has the federal government attempted to impose national speed limits in times of "national emergency." During World War II a 35 m.p.h. national speed limit was imposed to save "rubber" for the war effort. The death rate for 100 million passenger-miles was 11.22 in 1945. Then again when the "OPEC oil crisis" started in October, 1973, officials imposed a 55 m.p.h. speed limit to curtail the use of oil in 1974. In 1974 the death rate was 3.59 per 100 million passenger-miles. Note that the death rate dropped from 11.22 to 3.59 for federal speed limits that increased from 35 m.p.h. to 55 m.p.h.

The "oil shortage" passed and we did not run out of oil as predicted. The federal government cannot mandate speeds on our various state highways except in times of national emergency. But federal officials can blackmail the states into compliance by withholding "our own tax monies" from us if we don't knuckle under to Big Brother's well-meaning but poorly informed and growing control of our local freedoms.

On the positive side of this issue, we have approximately 180 million motor vehicles registered serving the needs of a population of approximately 240 million people--twice as many vehicles driving twice as many miles as in 1965. In 1965 we had 49,163 motor-vehicle-related fatalities reported. In 1986 the reported figure is 47,900 motor-vehicle fatalities, not the 100,000 fatalities that twice as many vehicles driving twice as many miles could have produced if we hadn't made some pretty spectacular progress in the safety of our roadways and the vehicles that travel on them.

Time is precious, not to be wasted unproductively. Generally time in transit is wasted time. Our objective is to move more quickly from one place to another. Speed--safe speed--is an obvious objective for our motor vehicles, for our roadways and freeways of the future.


Redondo Beach

Los Angeles Times Articles