EDITOR'S NOTE

Whoa, Speed Racer

Is a proposed bill to increase the speed limit a reason to celebrate and accelerate?

Posted

We are in such a hurry.

Technology has made immediacy our default: Mobile devices cater to our every need the moment we need it, facts are available in a few short keystrokes, and we can download any song or movie in an instant. We have places to go, things to do, people to see, and we want to get there yesterday. Unfortunately, the transporters "Star Trek" promised so many years ago have yet to materialize.

This revved-up reality has turned our roads into racetracks where impatience and rage rule. We have an unquenchable need for speed, and no one had better get in our way.

Perhaps sensing this thirst to be first, Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, are proposing to increase the speed limit on rural interstates in Florida from 70 to 75 mph.

This change would put Florida in the company of 14 other states with 75 mph limits. Utah allows 80 mph, and Texas allows 85 mph in some areas.

Florida hasn't adjusted the speed limit since 1996, after Congress repealed the National Maximum Speed Law and returned that authority to states. The NMSL prohibited speed limits above 55 mph in response to the 1973 oil crisis; in the late '80s, it increased to 65 mph on certain limited-access, rural roads.

Currently, the speed limit is 70 mph on 1,472 miles of interstate highway mostly in Central and North Florida on Interstate 10, I-75, Florida's Turnpike, I-95, the Suncoast Parkway and parts of I-4. It's 65 on highways with divided medians and 60 on other roads the Florida Department of Transportation oversees.

The logic goes that, at an additional 5 mph, you'd get where you're going faster. But how much time would you really save? According to AAA, a 30-mile trip would take 32.7 minutes at 55 mph, 27.7 minutes at 65 mph (5 minutes saved) or 24 minutes at 75 mph (8.7 minutes saved).

If you have to slow down for traffic, signals or curves in roads, you'd probably save 4 minutes at best. And most trips are short, so the average time saved on a 5-mile trip, driving 65 mph on a 45 mph posted road, is only 1.9 minutes.

The faster you drive, the more likely things will go badly. Here are a few of the reasons why:

Stopping distance: Basic physics states the faster you go, the longer it takes to stop.

Response time: In the two seconds it takes to recognize an emergency and take action, a car going 85 mph will have traveled 249 feet before the driver reacts, or about 16 car lengths. At 65 mph, the distance is still 190 feet, or about 12 car lengths. Our reaction times don't speed up because we're going faster.

Speed kills: Accidents at high speeds are much worse and more likely to be fatal. Proponents of raising the speed limit say National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that the number of traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven has declined since 1996. But AAA said that in states with a 75 mph limit, speed was a factor in nearly one-third of all fatal crashes. A 2009 American Journal of Public Health study found road fatalities attributed to higher speeds increased 3 percent after the 1995 repeal of the national speed limit; it rose 9 percent on rural interstates with higher limits, Russ Rader, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman, told The Miami Herald.

Driving at lower speeds also saves gas: Higher speeds require more fuel to overcome air resistance.

So why would anyone suggest raising the speed limit?

According to Carinsurance.com, studies by the Michigan State Police found the safest speed limits are those that use the prevailing speed for most drivers on the road, capture 85 percent of drivers, and hit the sweet spot where the difference between the fastest and slowest drivers is smallest.

Using that logic, if the majority of people are breaking the posted speed limit, we should increase it, right?

One reason legislators might want to raise the speed limit: Voters love it. After all, many legislators are up for re-election in 2014, including Brandes. Clemens is due in 2016.

Or perhaps legislators are tired of getting speeding tickets on their commutes to and from Tallahassee. Brandes has a clean driving record, but in 2011, Clemens was ticketed twice in one week for going 79 mph in a 70 mph zone, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

"I don't know that I'd call that a factor," Clemens told the Tampa Bay Times about his decision to support a higher speed limit. "But I certainly question the need for issuing speeding citations on long, flat, rural roads."

The bill Brandes and Clemens propose would allow the speed limit to rise only after DOT engineers concluded it was safe.

Speeding is the most common traffic violation, outnumbering all others combined. Would raising the speed limit magically eliminate our propensity to speed — or just give us permission to press the gas even harder?

Traffic fatalities might be down, but much of that can be attributed to cars with better safety features and the decline in miles driven. Seat belt laws were also major game changers.

Nobody thinks it's a good idea to ditch seat belt laws because traffic fatalities are down, so why would we use that logic with the speed limit? 

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