Can higher speed limits actually reduce accidents?

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80 mph

Some say it's safer to travel at 80 mph. Others say no. Image: JaseMan/Flickr/CC BY

There seems to be a trend is some states to push for higher speed limits. A recent study from Utah showed that the practice may actually reduce accidents and fatalities.  Other studies disagree.

Are higher speed limits safer?

In 2009, The Utah Department of Transportation, in a test program, raised the speed limit from 75 mph to 80 mph on two stretches of highway near the town of Fillmore. The area was selected for its lack of twists and turns and relatively-low population density.

The tests paid off. It was discovered that accidents decreased by 11 percent and by 20 percent in the two test areas.

Further, it found that the average speed of motorists went up only slightly — from 83 mph to 85 mph. That also resulted in a 20 percent reduction in drivers exceeding the speed.

More recently, the speed limit was similarly raised in two other test areas, near the towns of Beaver and Parowan. Those areas have been showing similar results. If test results continue as they are now, those areas will be permanently changed to 80 mph in 2014.

The testing began following the 2008 passage of a bill that was spearheaded by Utah rep. Jim Dunnigan (R).

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‘Making legal what a majority of people are doing’

Dunnigan said:

“When we initially presented this, there were concerns that if we raised the speed limit from 75 to 80 mph that people would really travel from 90 to 100 mph. That didn’t happen. The average speed only increased a couple miles an hour. … Most people are already traveling 80, so we are making legal what a majority of people are doing.”

Carlos Braceras, director of the Utah Department of Transportation, told the Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee that it is moving forward to make the speed limit change permanent in the test areas. It is also considering more test areas in which to expanded the effort.

The committee voted unanimously on Sept. 19 to proceed with more testing.

Texas posts highest speed limit

Earlier this month, the speed limit on a 41-mile toll road in Texas was raised to the highest in the land: 85 mph. The road makes for the fasted trip ever from San Antonio to Austin, TX, by Honda or any other auto make.

Conflicting studies

USA today cited Russ Rader, a spokesman for the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in its coverage of the event. Rader’s statement contradicts the state-sponsored study in Utah. Rader said:

“The research is clear that when speed limits go up, fatalities go up.”

USA Today also cited a 2009 American Journal of Public Health study. It found that more than 12,500 people died in traffic accidents that were attributable to raised speed limits in the prior ten-years.


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