Wednesday, July 08, 2009


It's 2009 -- let's raise highway speed limits to reasonable levels

I couldn't help but chuckle a little bit this week as I read this story about an Ohio state trooper who was allegedly radared going 147 miles per hour on his sportbike while off duty. He faces a license suspension and the possible loss of his job if he is convicted, a high price to pay for doing some thing that -- depending on the circumstances -- may not have been that big a deal.

Now, hold on. Before all of you fire up your Gmail accounts and start sending pissed off emails to the Superbike Blog ranting about how this guy is a menace and that all sportbikers should be soaked in chum and thrown into shark-infested waters, let's take a look at speed limits from a realistic perspective. Put your preconceived, brainwashed notions aside for a few minutes and consider the following:

1.) The death rate on American highways has dropped by 67 percent since the 1950s, even as the highway speed limit has been increased. Safer cars, better roads, and better driver education have been partially credited for these numbers. By the NHTSA's own data, our highways are safer than ever.

2.) Montana recorded its lowest highway death rate in 1995, during an era when the state had no daytime highway speed limit. Since daytime speed limits were imposed in 1999, the death rate has been consistently higher. This evidence seems to debunk the idea that slower automatically equals safer.

3.) Federal and state studies have consistently shown that the drivers most likely to get into accidents in traffic are those traveling significantly below the average speed. According to an Institute of Transportation Engineers Study, those driving 10 mph slower than the prevailing speed are six times as likely to be involved in an accident that someone driving 10 mph over.

4.) People generally will not go faster than what they feel is comfortable and safe, regardless of the posted speed limit. For example, an 18-month study following an increase in the speed limit along the New York Thruway (from 55 to 65 mph), determined that the average speed of traffic, 68 mph, remained the same. Even a national study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration also concluded that raising or lowering the speed limit had practically no effect on actual travel speeds.

5.) Two of the safest highway systems in the world are in Germany, where speed limits on 70 percent of the Autobahn are unrestricted, and in Italy, where the highway speed limit is 96 miles per hour. You can say what you want about the differences in driver education and infrastructure between the U.S. and those countries, but the facts remain the same.

I post all that data simply to say that high-speed riding and driving can be done reasonably when conditions are right. On a long, lonely highway with good visibility, 140 miles per hour is a doddle on a sportbike. I'm not sure if those conditions reflect the busted state trooper's scenario, but suffice it to say that motorcyclists traveling over 100 miles per hour many times tend to be treated harshly based on emotional reaction, rather than based on common sense and the totality of circumstances.

It's time to start looking pragmatically at the capabilities of modern vehicles, their relative safety compared to previous generations of vehicles, and make necessary changes to our laws and infrastructure in order to accommodate them. I'm not advocating total chaos on the roads, simply a revamping of our practices and enforcement techniques. Enforcing proper space cushioning, lane discipline, and right-of-way observance instead of frivolous speed violations would go a long way toward achieving faster, safer highways in the modern age.

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