Thanks to a push from rural Minnesota drivers, the 55 mph speed limit on most two-lane state highways is being bumped up to 60 mph.
While many applaud the change, some national safety experts cringe, fearing that it will mean more fatal crashes.
“Raising the speed limit never comes without a cost,” said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit based in Virginia. Increases in speed limits over two decades have contributed to the deaths of 33,000 people, according to the institute’s research.
It’s a matter of physics, because an impact is stronger and the damage more severe when a vehicle crashes at higher speeds, Rader said. Most crash tests are done at 35 to 40 mph because that’s considered a severe-impact speed, he explained.
“Raising the speed limit reduces the ability of the driver to brake and bring the vehicle to a survivable [crash] level,” Rader said.
In addition, the risks are higher on rural two-lane roads, where vehicles travel at each other on roads often lined by ditches, trees and other hazards, he said.
Safety hasn’t been the only concern behind lower speed limits. Many states dropped speed limits to 55 mph during the 1970s oil crisis in an effort to save fuel. They adopted the lower limit if they wanted their share of federal highway funding. “It was the power of the purse that brought speeds down,” said Kara Macek of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
That law was repealed in 1995 and states began increasing speed limits, she said, noting that a stretch of road in Texas has a posted limit of 85 — the highest in the country.
Macek’s concern is that people often drive faster than the posted limits.
“It’s the buffer zone,” she said. “People don’t think they’re going to get caught if they drive 5 or 10 miles over the speed limit. So if [traffic engineers] say it’s safe to drive at 60, people will really be driving 65 or 70. And that’s obviously a cause of concern.”
But in Minnesota, that hasn’t been the case.
In 2014, legislators directed the state Department of Transportation to study 7,000 miles of rural, two-lane state highways to determine where the 55 mph speed limit could be increased. Traffic experts examined roadway geometrics and hazards before deciding to increase the limit on 5,240 miles of Minnesota roads, according to a five-year study released this week.
“If we had any concern about the performance of the road, we erred on not increasing it,” said Brad Estochen, state traffic safety engineer. “That was our recipe for success. National experts often base their studies on all roads changing from 55 to 60 or 65. We were methodical.”
It’s true that when the speed limit was 55 mph, people often drove 63 mph to 65 mph, Estochen said. When it was bumped up to 60, drivers often hit 64 to 66 mph, which isn’t much faster than when the limit was set at 55 mph, he said.
Increasing the limit has meant that more drivers — the rule followers and the speeders — more often travel at similar speeds, Estochen said. And that makes it safer on the roads, he added.
Despite the increase in speed, the number of crashes didn’t increase as some national studies would have predicted, Estochen said. “The severity ticked up a bit, not enough to be alarming,” he said. “In fact, it was less than other research anticipated.”
More than two-thirds of the rural highways slated to be changed to the increased limit have already been posted, and the rest should be completed this year, Estochen said. Transportation officials plan to monitor the effects of those changes.
State Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said his rural constituents have long clamored for the increase at town halls and in phone calls and e-mails. Many drive 30 to 60 minutes to larger communities to shop and work, said Westrom, one of several legislators who pushed for the change.
“Time is money,” he said.
With good roads, safe cars and little traffic, many motorists feel safe driving at a higher speed limit, he said. Many motorists routinely sail along at 60 mph even when the posted limit is 55 mph.
Changing the limit will merely decriminalize what people were already doing, said Westrom.
“No one liked the idea that they were breaking the law and being subject to expensive tickets,” he said.