Speed Zone Ahead: Why Speed Limits Are Rising

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You may be old enough to remember the days of mandatory 55 mile-per-hour speed limits, which were imposed for a time after the oil price shocks of the 1970s and the ensuing panic over the supposed end of cheap gasoline. Then came the 1990s and suddenly all was well in the energy markets again. The nationwide speed limit was quickly abolished, leaving states to their own devices, and speed limits continue to rise despite persistently expensive fuel. Read on to learn why this is happening and where you can find the United States’ fastest highways.

Slow and Steady

Speed limits exist first and foremost for safety purposes. In a world devoid of meaningful enforcement of speeding laws, you can bet that some folks would drive a whole lot faster than they do today, with unknowable consequences for the safety of their fellow drivers. You don’t need a well-funded university study to see the correlation between speed and accident rates.

A Brief History of the Speed Limit

Historically, however, speed limits have existed for another important purpose: energy conservation. In response to the first Arab oil embargo in 1973, President Nixon imposed a mandatory nationwide speed limit of 55 miles per hour to reduce the nation’s per-capita consumption of gasoline. Once gasoline prices cratered in the mid-1990s, mandatory nationwide limits were abolished and the power to set maximum speeds was transferred to the individual states in 1995. Although gasoline has since become far more expensive than it was during the glory days of the 1990s, drivers in most states have proven unwilling to give up their new-found freedom of movement.

How High Can They Go?

Most states outside of the crowded northeastern corridor now impose speed limits of 70 miles per hour or higher. West of the Mississippi, it’s not uncommon to find speed limits of 75 miles per hour or higher, and Texas recently made waves by announcing a plan to test out 85-mph limits on a few sections of rural highway. If said test is successful, you can bet on eventually seeing similar speed limits in a rural area near you.

Why Now?

Several factors are conspiring to make higher speed limits more palatable to drivers, safety advocates and law enforcement personnel.

  • Fuel efficiency. Thanks to stricter federal fuel-efficiency standards, mileage ratings on new cars routinely exceed 30 miles per gallon on the highway and hold firm even at higher speeds.
  • “Flow” studies. Recent studies suggest that the “prevailing speed” of traffic changes little as the speed limit increases. If traffic is flowing comfortably at 75 miles per hour on a given road, raising the speed limit to 80 may not lead to a sudden increase in speed.
  • Wider roads. Interstates built since the 1990s tend to have wider shoulders and thicker pavement, supporting consistently higher driving speeds. Speed limits remain lower on most older urban highways, where there is less margin for error in congested conditions.

In places like Texas and Utah, the future is already here: Drivers cruise along at speeds of 80 miles per hour or above thanks to improvements in vehicle efficiency ratings and highway engineering techniques. Depending on how these early adopters fare in terms of safety and traffic-flow statistics, other states may not be far behind.

Hillary Lions lives and writes in London. She writes for www.carinsurance.org.uk where you can find more information on car insurance, trips, and tips for saving money when you drive.

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