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Faster, Please

You’ve probably already seen by now that the Maryland State Senate passed a bill to raise the speed limit on some state highways to 70 MPH. The bipartisan bill (lead sponsored by Senator George Edwards) and its bipartisan House companion (with lead sponsor Delegate Wendell Beitzel) is a good start toward bringing common sense speed limits to Maryland. But we’ll need to go much further.

The bill, as it’s been approved by the Senate, sets the maximum speed limit at 70 miles per hour. This might be an appropriate speed for several highways in our state. It brings Maryland into line with our regional neighbors in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, who all also have a 70 mile-per-hour speed limit.

I do want to draw attention, however, to one particular comment from the bill’s fiscal note:

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), the eighty-fifth percentile speed is the speed at or below which 85% ofmotorists drive on a given road when unaffected by slower traffic or poor weather. MDOT considers the use of the eighty-fifth percentile speed a good guideline for setting the appropriate speed limit for a road. MDOT has advised that research indicates that the posted speed limit has little effect on the speeds at which most motorists drive. Thus, raising the speed limit,if done in accordance with traffic and engineering studies and in consideration of the eighty-fifth percentile guidelines, is unlikely to increase the number of crashes on a road.
So there is absolutely no practical effect to raising the speed limit only by five miles-per-hour. Drivers are going to drive the same speed. Drivers will be in no additional danger of being involved in accidents, fatal or otherwise. And through their own admission, MDOT admits (all though not explicitly) that drivers are far exceeding the existing speed limits anyway. Modern highways and expressways are built for high speeds, far in excess of 70 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened 75 years ago, was even designed for speeds of 100). Highways such as Interstate 68 and Interstate 70 west of Hagerstown are extremely rural roads with relatively low traffic volumes. Even major highways, like Interstate 270 and Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Washington can safely handle speeds in excess of 70 MPH. They do it all the time.

We know that localities, in particular, have championed speed cameras as a means to try to collect additional means of revenue, regardless of their negligible impact on driver safety. The same logic can be applied to the speed limit.  A speeding ticket for doing 20 miles over the limit is a much higher fine than one for five-to-ten miles over the limit. And based on my unscientific observations as a drive on quite a few American highways, you average driver tends to not exceed 85 miles-per-hour regardless of the circumstances.  Whether the speed limit is 55 or 80 (as it has been on roads I have driven in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming), most cars never push the limit past 85. That means that your “average driver” from my observations would not be subject to an expensive speeding ticket as they are now. And if the focus on traffic enforcement moves away from meeting quotas through speed enforcement, we can plae more of an emphasis on getting drunk drivers off the roads and dealing with other, more dangerous behaviors.

70 MPH is a good start. But we won’t start seeing real value until we get the speed limit up to 80.





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