Unsafe Idea: Legislator Proposes Raising PA Turnpike Speed Limit to 70 mph
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on May 31st, 2012
A proposal to raise the speed limit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike from 65 mph to 70 mph has been introduced by a legislator who argues that it makes sense because cars and roads today are safer than ever.
The problem is that’s ridiculous, based on all of the statistics that are available about vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities when it comes to higher vehicle speeds.
The bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by Rep. Joe Preston, D-Allegheny County, according to a story in The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News. The measure was passed by the House transportation committee by an 18-4 vote and it is now being reviewed by House Republican leaders, according to the paper.
Preston told the Patriot-News that the higher speed limit is warranted because road improvements on the Turnpike have made the highway safer over the years. “When you spend 15,000 to 18,000 miles a year on the turnpike, you notice the difference,” he told the paper. “All I’m trying to do is give them the [leeway] to make it 70 mph if they so choose in different spots. It doesn’t change it. It just gives them the opportunity to change it.”
The speed limit on most of the Turnpike is 65 mph since the limit was raised back in 1995-96. Some sections around urban areas and toll plazas have a 55 mph speed limit.
And while Preston’s belief that a higher speed limit is supported by better roads and safer vehicle design, critics say that’s hogwash.
“The fact is pretty clear – if you raise speed limits on an urban or rural highway, more people will die,” said John Ulczycki, a vice president with the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council. “That’s not my opinion. It’s a fact that is so every time we raise speed limits.”
Overall, there has been a significant decrease in traffic deaths in the U.S. over last decade in many categories such as teen crashes, DUI crashes and truck crashes, but one area where fatalities have not decreased is in speed-related deaths, Ulczycki said. “Speed continues to be factor in one-third of traffic fatalities. Even with cars and roads getting better, those numbers are not going down. The legislator [who sponsored the bill] can talk about better roads and better vehicles. Yes, that’s all true and that’s having a real effect on safety, but it’s not affecting road deaths.”
A wealth of data points to a correlation between higher road speeds and increased fatalities, said Russ Rader, vice president of communications for the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Because we’ve had this long experience of speed limits over time there have been many opportunities to study what happens when speed limits go down and up,” he said. “The research is clear that when you raise speed limits deaths go up and when you lower them deaths go down.”
If approved by the Legislature and governor, a higher speed limit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will result in more crash deaths, Rader said. “A change like this will definitely allow people to get to their destinations faster, but the tradeoff is a road that is less safe.”
And while today’s motor vehicles are in fact safer than older vehicles due to advances in air bags, passive restraints, electronic stability controls and more, today’s vehicle crash safety ratings refer to vehicles that are tested at 35 to 40 mph, not at the 65 mph being driven on today’s highways, he said.
“When you get up to these very high speeds you’re overwhelming all of the crash-worthy structures and safety equipment that is built into modern vehicles,” Rader said. “At ever higher speeds, you are increasing the likelihood of a crash and the severity when one happens.”
In addition, many vehicles on our roads are older and don’t have all the latest safety devices.
Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that deaths on rural interstates increased 25-30 percent when states began increasing speed limits from 55 to 65 mph in 1987. In 1989, about two-thirds of this increase — 19 percent, or 400 deaths — was attributed to increased speed, the rest to increased travel, according to the group.
“A 1999 Institute study of the effects of the 1995 repeal of the national maximum speed limit indicated this trend had continued,” the IIHS reports. “Researchers compared the numbers of motor vehicle occupant deaths in 24 states that raised speed limits during late 1995 and 1996 with corresponding fatality counts in the 6 years before the speed limits were changed, as well as fatality counts from 7 states that did not change speed limits. The Institute estimated a 15 percent increase in fatalities on interstates and freeways.”
A later study, conducted in 2009, found that the 1995 repeal of the 55 mph national speed limit resulted in a 3 percent increase in road fatalities attributable to higher speed limits on all road types, with the highest increase of 9 percent on rural interstates. “The authors estimated that 12,545 deaths were attributed to increases in speed limits across the US between 1995 and 2005,” the report stated.
A similar effort to increase the speed limit was successful in neighboring Ohio last year, according to the Patriot-News story, when the Ohio Turnpike raised its speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph on the 241-mile span across northern Ohio. “The number of crashes during the first year of the higher speed limit rose by 5.6 percent from the year before, according to an April 29 story in The [Cleveland] Plain-Dealer,” the paper reported.
So what does this all mean?
On its face, the proposal to increase the speed limit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a bad idea because it doesn’t provide any true benefits for anyone.
Already, many motorists are exceeding the 65 mph speed limit, which essentially means that drivers are illegally operating their vehicles at 70 to 80 mph or more. Bumping the limit up by 5 mph is only going to encourage more speeding while not resulting in any true gains for residents.
Lower speeds mean greater safety and increased fuel economy, so raising the speed limit even more is counter to safety and efficiency.
It would be better for our legislators to be at work on bills aimed at helping our Commonwealth’s economy, school districts, local communities and residents, rather than on isolated side issues like the speed limit on the Turnpike.
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