Speeding is one of the leading causes of car wrecks because most drivers cannot control a vehicle that is moving at a high rate of speed.
In 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which included the National Maximum Speed Law (NMSL) that set the national speed limit at 55 mph. Following the enactment of the NMSL, car wreck fatalities decreased by the thousands.
After the enactment of the NMSL, many complained of government intrusiveness and argued that, since drivers were already exceeding posted 55 mph limits, setting speed limits should be left up to each state. In 1995, Congress responded to opponents of the law by repealing the NMSL and passing the National Highway System Designation Act, which reinstated the power to set speed limits to each state.
The Effect of NMSL Repeal on Car Accident Rate
In a September 2009 article published in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Long-Term Effects of Repealing the National Maximum Speed Limit in the United States,” researchers examined the long-term effects between 1995 and 2005 on rural interstates, where all US states had raised speed limits since the repeal, as well as on urban interstates and non-interstate roads, where many states had raised speed limits, and reported a 3.2% increase in road fatalities attributable to the raised speed limits on all road types in the United States. The highest increases were on rural interstates (9.1%) and urban interstates (4.0%). They estimated that, between 1995 and 2005, 12,545 deaths and 36,583 injuries in fatal crashes were attributable to increases in speed limits across the United States.
In the article, the researchers concluded that “Reduced speed limits and improved enforcement with speed camera networks could immediately reduce speeds and save lives, in addition to reducing gas consumption, cutting emissions of air pollutants, saving valuable years of productivity, and reducing the cost of motor vehicle crashes.”
The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) conducted its own study and published a report in 2006, to help guide state highway officials and policy makers in setting speed limits. It examined earlier studies, surveyed state transportation and police departments, and collected and analyzed relevant data. The NCHRP study found that increasing a speed limit from 55 to 65 mph on an “average” section of high speed road resulted in about a 3% increase in the total number of crashes and a 24% likelihood that a vehicle occupant would be fatally injured, causing a 28% increase in the number of fatalities following the speed limit increase.
Texas Leads the Nation in Highway Speeds
Texas is a state with some of the highest speed limits in the country. According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the maximum highway speed limit in Texas is at 70 mph, but the Texas Transportation Commission is allowed to set a speed limit of 75 mph, 80 mph or 85 mph if a highway engineering study finds that it is a safe and reasonable speed and if the highway is built to accommodate that speed. Texas is home to a 41 mile stretch of highway with an 85 mph speed limit, the highest in the U.S. In 2015, there were 16,754 total car crashes caused by unsafe speed, according to TxDOT, and 290 people died in those accidents.
The Positive Psychological Effect of Lower Speed Limits
The 55 mph speed limit set in 1974 created a mindset of speed awareness. Keeping the speed limit lower also allowed for the fact that drivers will tend to exceed speed limits by an extra five to ten miles per hour. A speed limit of 70 mph may mean that drivers will actually go faster than that speed, hitting 75 mph or 80 mph. Once the federal government left it up to the states, 70 mph and 75 mph were permitted on some highways, raising the potential for speeding up to 85 mph or more.
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