Summary. Studies now show that faster speed limits are not necessarily unsafe. In fact, they may be more safe than lower speed limits. However, irrational thinking is starting to result in some equally irrational driving related legislation.
For example, some states are passing laws prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving, even though many people find they are more alert when driving alone at night if they are talking to someone. So, banning cell phones may, in fact, make the roads more dangerous.
The same is true for legislation regarding speed limits. When speed limits are set artificially low, drivers are lulled into a boring, monotonous, trance-like, hypnotic stupor of mindless driving. When they ultimately need to react to an emergency, their senses have been dulled to the point of being less responsive. Higher speed limits make driving more enjoyable and keep drivers more alert and attentive to the road ahead.
Utah recently increased the speed limit on some roads to 80 miles per hour. Surprisingly, drivers tended to drive the same speed as they had before. Previously they were all breaking the law, by driving a speed that felt comfortable. The increased speed limit simply resulted in more people being within the posted speed limit with an average speed slightly over the posted speed.
On 9 February 2010, the National Motorists Association published an article, Speed Kills Higher Speed Limits Prove Motorists React Responsibly. The following are excerpts from the article [emphasis added]:
It has been a year since Utah increased the speed limit along some sections of I-15 to 80 mph, joining some rural highway stretches of Texas as having the highest posted limits in the U.S. Although proponents of 55 mph speed limits were apoplectic and dire in their predictions of highway fatalities stacking up along the I-15 roadside, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) data show that there has been no increase in accidents in the areas that have higher designated speed limits. …
UDOT measured the 85th percentile speed along those stretches of I-15, both before and after the limit was increased to 80 mph. The agency’s findings blew another myth out of the water, namely the one that claims drivers will automatically increase their speed by at least the same increment as the raised limit.
At the previously posted 75 mph limit, UDOT’s traffic study showed that a majority of drivers traveled at 81 to 85 mph. When the speed limit was increased by 5 mph to 80, the traffic stream was mostly at 83 to 85 mph. So, in other words, the degree of “speeding” actually decreased when Utah established a standard using 85th percentile data.
Drivers along I-15 demonstrated their comfort zone to be in the 80 to 85 mph range, regardless of the posted speed limit. This once again proved the effectiveness of using the 85th percentile speed to promote a safe, efficient traffic flow. And it no doubt increased the driving pleasure for the motorists traveling along the I-15 corridor in Utah.
The safety of faster driving obviously hinges on driver experience, time of day, vehicle handling, road conditions, visibility, and weather and other factors. Rather than setting speed limits, it would seem more practical to set safe speed ranges that help drivers gauge their speed based on a variety of conditions. For example, exit ramps often have a speed limit posted. This isn’t an arbitrary law. Nobody has probably ever gotten a ticket for speeding on an exit ramp. However, if you go over that speed limit, depending on the vehicle and road conditions, you may end up in the ditch.