With the DOT set to publish a speed limiter mandate for trucks any day now, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has come out with new study that tallies the death toll associated with higher speeds on U.S. highways—and it’s not pretty.
Increases in speed limits between 1993 and 2013 cost 33,000 lives in the U.S. And just in 2013, the increases resulted in 1,900 additional deaths, essentially canceling out the number of lives saved by frontal airbags that year, according to IIHS.
"Although fatality rates fell during the study period, they would have been much lower if not for states' decisions to raise speed limits," says Charles Farmer, IIHS vice president for research and statistical services and the author of the study.
For those not old enough to recall the old double-nickel, Congress in 1973 required that states adopt 55 mph as their maximum speed limit in order to receive their share of federal highway funds. But this was all about saving fuel in the midst of Middle East oil crisis, not safety. Yet the decrease in highway deaths was “dramatic,” IIHS notes.
(On a personal note: As a young man driving back and forth across the Southwest, 55 mph was pure torture, and 75 mph was way stressful for a kid paranoid about driver’s license points, to say nothing of jail conditions in Gallup, NM in August 1978—just a random example ... just sayin'.)
Congress began easing the restrictions on states in 1987 and the National Maximum Speed Limit was repealed in 1995.
Proponents of raising the speed limit often argue that such increases simply bring the law in line with reality, since most drivers exceed the limit, IIHS notes. And IIHS points out, once the limit is raised drivers go even faster.
This is significant in that six states currently have 80 mph limits, and drivers in Texas can legally drive 85 mph on some roads.
Farmer’s research found that each 5 mph increase in the maximum speed limit resulted in a 4 percent increase in fatalities. The increase on interstates and freeways, the roads most affected by state maximums, was 8 percent.
"Since 2013, speeds have only become more extreme, and the trend shows no sign of abating," Farmer says. "We hope state lawmakers will keep in mind the deadly consequences of higher speeds when they consider raising limits."
So what does this mean for trucking? Several things, each of which we’ll no doubt be discussing at length once the speed limit rule (and setting) comes out, but the major topics will be:
- It’s all about safety. With studies in hand, the DOT will have run the numbers and put some figure on how many lives will be saved by speed limiters, and the equivalent dollar amount of those lives will far outweigh the cost to the industry and the economy of productivity losses. Supporters will cheer the math; opponents will take it apart. And we’ll all get familiar with the concepts of "design speed" and “speed differential.”
- The Noble Gesture. Supporters will claim trucking needs to be the good guy, and show leadership on the matter of speed—so the numbers matter, but there’s more to it. Opponents will say: Make all the noble gestures you want, ATA, but DOT has no business costing the rest of us money. (And see how much John Q. Citizen enjoys sitting behind 65 mph elephant races on that 80 mph stretch of interstate.)
- Slower trucks make business sense. Yep. For highway operations, in certain conditions. But again, why mandate it, rather than let the market decide?
Look for Congress and the courts to weigh in as well. Stay tuned.