Increasing PA Turnpike speed to 70 mph raises safety concerns
March 20, 2016 12:00 AM
(Mark Duncan/Associated Press)
In this photo made Sept. 29, 2011, eastbound traffic rolls on the Ohio Turnpike in Strongsville, Ohio. The number of crashes and the amount of commercial traffic reported along the Ohio Turnpike rose slightly during the first six months of its higher 70 mph speed limit compared with the same period last year, according to turnpike officials and the State Highway Patrol, who say they need more data to determine whether the increases are linked to the new speed limit.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Increasing the speed limit to 70 miles an hour this spring on the Pennsylvania Turnpike — and likely on other state roads — doesn’t come without safety concerns.
The concern isn’t that higher speeds may cause more accidents but that the accidents that do occur will cause more serious damage and greater injuries.
The Turnpike Commission voted Tuesday to increase the top speed from 65 to 70 mph throughout the state after an 18-month study on a 100-mile stretch in the south-central part of the state. Although no final decision has been made, PennDOT is expected to follow suit at the same time this spring on portions of the interstate highway system after testing the higher speed on parts of Interstates 80 and 380.
“It’s a concern, for sure,” said Kara Macek, director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group that lobbies for safe highway conditions.
“When you are going faster, the potential consequences are much greater if there is an accident. While 70 mph might be safe from an engineering standpoint, it’s not safe when you consider distracted driving from people using cell phones and other devices.”
Jim Runk, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Trucking Association, said the speed change likely will have little or no effect on most big-rig drivers. Many of the rigs already have devices known as governors on their engine to prevent the vehicles from going more than 65-68 mph to conserve fuel and that isn’t like to change if the speed limit increases, he said.
A higher speed limit is appropriate on the turnpike because it is a well-maintained, closed highway system and state police do a good job controlling traffic, Mr. Runk said. Limited portions of Interstate 80 also shouldn’t pose a problem with a higher speed limit, either, he said.
Nationally, Pennsylvania will join 33 other states that have maximum speed limits of 70 mph or higher. States began setting their own maximum speed limits after Congress repealed the National Maximum Speed Limit of 65 mph in 1995.
The highest maximum speed is 80 miles an hour in Nevada and South Dakota, although Utah and Wyoming allow 80 mph on some roads and Texas allows 85 mph in limited areas.
Lee S. Friedman, an associate professor of environmental and health issues at the University of Illinois, has written about traffic issues for 20 years. A study he performed 10 years after the repeal of the national speed limit showed that traffic deaths increased by 12,000 to 15,000 a year.
Mr. Friedman said the move to increase speed limits in a number of states comes at a time when the automobile industry is making the safest vehicles in history, which should reduce the number of traffic fatalities.
“Vehicle safety design has improved greatly,” he said. “But the reality is we are offsetting the benefits of safer vehicles by allowing higher speeds. It comes down to the idea that the public has decided that 30,000 to 40,000 people dying on American roads every year is acceptable.”
Mr. Friedman said the biggest factor in highway deaths is that the U.S., in general, doesn’t do a good job managing the speed limit with enforcement, regardless of what the maximum speed is. Technology such as speed cameras, used in the United Kingdom, France and Australia, have reduced road deaths by 30 to 50 percent in those countries, he said.
“I would argue it is failed policy,” he said. “It’s definitely possible [to reduce traffic deaths]. It’s a matter of system-wide enforcement and speed management.”
Part of the reason that hasn’t happened, Ms. Macek said, is that Americans don’t consider speed the same as other risk factors such as drunk driving. National efforts have resulted in a drop in traffic deaths due to drunk driving, from 50.6 percent of all traffic fatalities in 1990 to 42 percent in 2009, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.
“We think speed is a forgotten issue in highway safety,” she said. “The problem is, it’s a culturally acceptable thing to drive above the speed limit.”
Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.
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