Back in 1995, interviewers on Mountain Lake Television's weekly news show “Behind the Headlines” asked Peter Person, commander of New York State Police Troop B, what the “real” speed limit was on the Northway, since the legal limit had just been raised from 55 to 65 mph.
“It's still 72,” he said, meaning that the effective limit, as far as the police were concerned, hadn't changed. Some people, he acknowledged, believed that since the legal limit had been raised 10 mph, the effective limit should too. According to their thinking, the practical limit should have moved up to 82 mph. Not so.
But maybe it should have. Studies are showing convincingly these days that 65 is not an optimum speed for safety.
The Department of Emergency Medicine at SUNY Buffalo studied traffic statistics on the Thruway from three years before the speed-limit change and three years after and found that the higher speed was actually safer. There was a 28.3 percent decrease in absolute traffic mortalities and a 42.6 percent decrease when adjusted for vehicle miles traveled.
According to an article in the Sept. 16 issue of Time magazine, Illinois has just become the 37th state to act on this trend, raising its speed limit to 70 mph or more. Bills in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Michigan could increase speed limits in those states to 70, 75 and 80 mph, respectively.
The magazine puts it this way: “Studies show that collisions are less likely on highways where velocity is limited to the speed that 85 percent of drivers normally don't exceed.” Or, more simply, driving is safer when most of the cars are going roughly the same speed.
Time quotes Illinois State Sen. Jim Oberweis: “On a big highway, if you're following the law and going 65 mph, you're likely to get run over.”
There was a time, in the very early 1970s, when some states — Kansas was one — had sections of four-lane highway where there was no speed limit whatsoever.