Will PA’s experiment with higher speed limits endanger drivers?

Many people in Media have heard that higher speed limits are now being tested on certain Pennsylvania interstates. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has raised limits to 70 mph on parts of I-80, I-380 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike to determine whether making such increases elsewhere is feasible, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Unfortunately, since speed frequently is a factor in fatal crashes, these changes may leave motorists in danger of serious car accidents.

Potential safety ramifications

Proponents of the current experiment cite a few reasons for raising speed limits. New limits would help commuters and transportation vehicles save time. Additionally, vehicles are equipped with better safety technology now than they were in the past. Pennsylvania's speed limits were last adjusted two decades ago, reflecting significantly different vehicles and safety concerns.

Higher limits could also reduce speed discrepancies between motorists who speed and motorists who abide by the law. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, limited research suggests that vehicles moving well above or below the average rate of travel have a greater risk of accidents. This means that eliminating speed differentials could reduce accidents.

Still, according to the Post-Gazette, a few facts indicate that speed limit increases may have serious consequences for Pennsylvania drivers:

  • After the national speed limit was repealed in 1995, one study found that fatalities on all roads increased 3 percent, while fatalities on rural roads increased 9 percent.
  • Researchers from the same study estimated that over 12,500 fatalities occurred between 1995 and 2005 due to higher speed limits across the country.
  • Higher speed limits do not necessarily eliminate speed variation, according to the IIHS. Motorists will typically adjust to and then exceed a new speed limit, so dangerous variations still exist - at a higher overall rate of speed.

These findings, coupled with general information about the effects of speed in motor vehicle accidents, suggest that any benefits of higher speed limits may be easily offset by the risks.

Impact of speed in accidents

Even if higher speed limits affectively addressed the issue of travel speed variation, they would still leave motorists less capable of avoiding accidents and more prone to serious injuries. At higher speeds, vehicles require more space to stop, and motorists cover a greater distance in the time that they spend reacting to a situation, according to the IIHS. This can make accident avoidance significantly less likely.

Speed is also directly related to crash severity, because it increases the amount of kinetic energy that must be dispelled. With greater kinetic energy, the likelihood of extensive vehicle damage and personal injuries is enhanced. Kinetic energy grows disproportionately to speed: a 50 percent increase in speed results in a 125 percent increase in kinetic energy.

In 2012, speed played a role in almost one-third of fatal accidents across the country, claiming more than 10,000 lives. Accidents in which drivers were exceeding the speed limit represented 21 percent of all injurious and fatal crashes. Sadly, Pennsylvania may start experiencing a greater number of these accidents if the state maintains the trial speed limits and raises limits on other roadways.

Anyone who has been hurt in an accident with a driver who was speeding or otherwise acting recklessly should meet with an attorney to discuss seeking compensation.