Are Our Speed Limits Too Low?

Around the U.S., there’s an increasing demand for higher speed limits. But is our need for speed putting us at risk?

When it comes to speed limits, how fast is too fast? And how slow is too slow?

U.S. states have been allowed to set their own speed standards since 1995, which means speed limits (and opinions about those limits) vary widely. But recently, the clamor for raising maximum speeds on highways has been getting louder. In 2012, Texas raised its maximum speed limit to 85 (the highest in the nation). Then, in August, Illinois passed a law raising its speed limit on rural highways to 70. Two Michigan senators are also currently proposing legislation that will boost speed limits on a variety of roads.

And just a few weeks ago, a video protesting the “artificially low” speed limits in British Columbia became an internet sensation both in Canada and America. The video, released by advocacy group Sense B.C., claims that low speed limits on highways actually create risk because the few drivers who obey the limit obstruct the safe flow of traffic. It goes on to suggest that revenue, not safety, is the real reason behind the limits. (Warning: this video contains occasional curse words, anti-government sentiment, and Canadian accents. Viewers, be aware.)

Currently, 34 states in the U.S. have speed limits of 70 or higher on at least some of their roadways. Are the limits in other states artificially low or a reasonable precaution? 

What is a safe speed anyway?

Interestingly, the drivers themselves determine this — most people will drive in a manner appropriate to the conditions and will ignore an unrealistically high or low speed limit. This is why, in the U.S., Canada, and other countries, limits are often set using the “eighty-fifth percentile” (the speed at or below which 85 percent of traffic is moving). Those who drive significantly faster or slower than this speed are more likely to crash.

In that case, should we have speed limits at all? Some roads, like much of Germany’s famed autobahn, have no limits. This may seem like a recipe for disaster, but when a German politician recently proposed 75 mph limits for the autobahn, his idea was met with scorn. The ADAC, a German and European motorists’ association, pointed out that only 11 percent of Germany’s serious accidents happen on the autobahn, even though it accommodates a third of the country’s traffic. The ADAC spokesperson didn’t say how many of those accidents were speed related, however.

Do lower speed limits save lives?

According to studies, yes. When the U.S. repealed federal speed limit controls in 1995, the result was a 3.2 percent jump in road fatalities over the next 10 years. But while the higher speed limits increased fatalities overall, some studies claim that higher speeds on interstates may have saved lives by drawing traffic away from more dangerous non-interstate roads.

Here’s one thing no one is debating: speed is directly related to the severity of a crash. According to the World Health Association, the risk of a crash resulting in a fatality is 20 times greater at 50 mph than at 19 mph. So, if you do get in an accident going 85 in Texas or 120 on the autobahn, it’s likely to be a bad one.

Is revenue the issue?

Driver advocacy groups like Sense B.C. claim that speed limits are often set artificially low so police can hand out more tickets. Assuming the eighty-fifth percentile is correct, drivers are naturally inclined to ignore unrealistic limits, so their chances of being caught speeding in those zones are much greater. Whether or not some limits are set too low intentionally is hard to say, but, along with the recent push to raise speed limits, there is also a movement in several states to outlaw speed traps. And Michigan’s state police have come out in favor of higher speed limits, saying speed limits that are too low put them in the position of ticketing responsible drivers.

Are higher speed limits in the U.S. inevitable?

It’s starting to seem that way, but there are also many advocates for keeping speed limits low. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) believes there’s an obvious safety trade-off with higher limits. “When speed limits go up, people go faster, and eventually that results in more crashes and more deaths,” said IIHS Senior Vice President Anne McCartt. Driving at higher speeds also takes a big toll on your fuel efficiency.

What’s your opinion? Are 55 and 65 mph speed limits archaic or do higher limits just give drivers a license to go too fast? Tell us what you think.

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22 Responses to “Are Our Speed Limits Too Low?”

  1. James C. Walker
    October 2, 2013 #

    Several points.
    1) In almost every case, posted limits set at the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions produce the smoothest and safest traffic flow with the fewest crashes.
    1a) Diverting traffic to freeways from surface highways reduces the fatality risk per mile traveled by a factor of two to four. We WANT drivers on high speed freeways, it is much safer.
    2) "Studies" showing a small rise in fatalities after the federal controls ended in 1995 deliberately ignored the higher number of miles driven. The fatality RATE per 100 million vehicle miles traveled continued to drop. The rate today is about 1 fatality per 100 million VMT compared to over 3 at the start of federal controls in 1974, and over 5 before the Interstates were built.
    3) It is a total myth that drivers go 10 mph faster when limits are raised by 10 mph. It is a falsehood designed to frighten the public and politicians into keeping artificially low limits.
    4) The IIHS insurance companies make money when safe drivers get tickets in zones with artificially low posted limits and get higher premiums. The IIHS wants less-safe artificially low limits to improve their profits.
    5) Today's cars with overdrive transmissions and very efficient fuel injection systems have very little difference in fuel economy at 75 versus 65 mph.
    6) Zero speed limits should be set by untrained politicians. All posted speed limits should be set by trained traffic safety experts, usually at the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic.
    James C. Walker, Life Member-National Motorists Association

    • Bill
      December 7, 2013 #

      I was about to make the same point as #2. Sounds like someone saw a study and then picked out the info that supported his argument and left out the rest.

    • ahess77
      March 11, 2014 #

      While I appreciate your viewpoint that higher speed limits are warranted, a couple of your points are not backed-up and therefore lead to hyperbole and doubt:
      #3, what proof do you have that this is a myth? What studies indicate this is not true? My personal opinion is opposite, as soon as the limit is raised 10 mph, I will drive 14mph over the new limit since the ticket is minor.
      #5 is simply false. Car manufacturers, engineers, and anyone who can perform a simple fuel mileage calculation will show any given car is about 20% less fuel efficient at 75 then at 65. It is true that most new cars are more fuel efficient than old cars, but they are not more efficient at 75 than at 65. Current passenger car shapes and powertrains are most fuel efficient between 35 and 60mph per OEM testing. See SAE published papers for info on this and hypermilling races.

  2. barry
    October 4, 2013 #

    I travel quite a bit between the east coast and the mid west by car. The legal speed limits vary between 55 to 70 mph. However, I find that a good deal of the time going at the set speed limit is far more dangerous that going with the flow of traffic. On a two lane highway you wind up dodging folks, that are technically obeying the law, who are really obstructing the flow of traffic. The higher the speed limit, I find, the less one runs into this. I also find that roads that are set artificially at 55 mph seem to have traffic flows that are 10 to 20 mph over the limit but when the limit is set at 70, the variance is less. The Illinois tollway is an example of that. Nobody travels at 55 mph, the limit, on that road. Yet, it stays at 55 mph. When one happens upon a person actually traveling at 55, it is hit the brake and change lane time. In my opinion, that has to cause more accidents than preventing them. State troopers all over the place. Good source of revenue.

  3. Kevin Smith
    October 4, 2013 #

    Best line of the day or any day from the article….video contains anti-government sentiments beware! Oh no – exposure to anti-government sentiments. Whatever you do, don't question the government. Or listen to people express them. Oh the horror!

    As for the other ideas about speeds Walker above is exactly right.

    And do electric cars care about fuel efficiency? And isn't my time likely worth more than the cost of the decreased fuel efficiency?

    Hopefully in 10-20 years this will all be moot as my robot car goes 100 mph with a fatality rate per 100 million VMT of < 0.2. Yeah!

    • Kevin Smith
      October 4, 2013 #

      I cannot edit my comments so responding to myself to say I think I over reacted. I see the author also jokingly said it had Canadian accents – so probably all humor and now I look like a humorless crank…

      Oh well.

  4. kognitron
    October 4, 2013 #

    I am much safer traveling on a restricted access highway, but if the speed limit on the highway is not significantly higher than local two lane roads, I am not going to go out of my way to use the highway, I'll use local two lane roads where I am much less safe, but will get there in the same time or less. It takes me more than 15 minutes to get to the nearest interstate highway entrance. If the speed limit on the highway is the same as the rural two lane county roads, 55 mph, there is no point wasting 15 minutes in time and gas (and more if my destination is also far from the interstate exit). After they lowered the speed limit to 55 mph, I stopped using the interstate for trips less than 200 miles one way unless the interstate was clearly the shorter/quicker route. I have never had an accident on an interstate, but have had many accidents on the rural two lane roads I was forced onto by the drop in speed limit.

  5. angela mckinnon
    October 4, 2013 #

    speed limits are where that should be in the right locations here in florida

  6. Merle Lynne Ludwig
    October 4, 2013 #

    I agree that 55 on a major highway these days is antiquated and dangerous and yet I won't go above 60 because I don't want a speeding ticket. There are always cops in NJ on the
    Parkway just waiting… I've already had one ticket, I don't want any more…

  7. bob suruncle
    October 4, 2013 #

    The slower is safer rational is true, but who wants to drive 25mph? Fewer deaths except those of us who whould be slitting their wrists…

  8. Cal van Dusen
    October 5, 2013 #

    No speed limits on the interstate?! Yeah baby…as long as the mass of unskilled drivers are restricted from access. That is with the raising of speed limits the skill requirements to get a license to drive on those roads should be increased as well.

    Then empower the police to ticket vehicles going too slow, delivery trucks occupying the diamond lanes, single drivers with babies using the diamond lane, any Prius driver, idiots with pets in their lap while driving, nuckleheads STILL holding their cell phone while driving, motorcyclists splitting lanes at more than 5mph faster than traffic flow, and a multitude of other dangerous infractions. Revenue will actually increase, and the roads will be safer for everyone.

  9. Gaurav Arora
    October 6, 2013 #

    Not all speed limits are incorrect. But few are and you know immediately because the general traffic is flowing 20+ mph on those roads.

  10. Bill Stone
    October 6, 2013 #

    How about enforcing slower traffic must stay to the right. Drivers who occupy the "fast lane" and drive at or below the speed limit do more to slow down the flow traffic of traffic. What good are higher speed limits if that mini van in front of you won't get over so you can even go the posted speed?

    • Jeff
      November 9, 2013 #

      Excellent point….slow left lane drivers are far more of a problem on interstates than anything else, even distracted drivers. These people must be ticketed! They look ahead and just love that there is no traffic ahead of them and could care less about the line of cars behind them flashing their lights and swerving around them.

    • JoJo
      November 10, 2013 #

      AMEN! They seem to stay there to "control" the speed they want you to go.

  11. Otto Cycle
    October 9, 2013 #

    You bet they're too low.
    many years back, I took a traffic safety course from a retired state trooper. for several classes he emphasized how fast a car is going on the highway. So many feet in one second, so many in a tenth of a second etc etc.

    A few weeks later he started telling us how he used too catch speeders, driving 100 miles an hour with a cup of coffee in one hand. This was before the no-spill lid. Then at night he'd drag race the cruiser against local teenagers.

    Germany has narrower, curvier roads than the U.S. Through city sections they have strictly enforced limits around 80 mph. Outside the city, it's whatever your car it's set at, you use common sense.
    Common cars in Germany have the limiter set at 155 mph

  12. mike
    October 15, 2013 #

    about 15 years ago, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) conducted a survey on traffic speeds. Their conclusions were published publicly and caused an uproar with politicians, and so was retracted. The finding? That speed itself was not nearly as great a factor in highway accidents as was the difference in speed, i.e., a passenger car traveling 70 (I-5 limit) and a truck doing 55 (I-5 truck limit). It seems that the sense in this escapes politicians, who generally ignore any limits, and the fact that most other western states allow large trucks to travel at the same speed as passenger cars, with little or no difference in accident statistics

  13. Alejandro M
    October 23, 2013 #

    As long as I have been a driver, I must say that i follow the speed limits in unknown roads, you don't want to find a curve at a higher speed than the one to safely go through. Also as the article states in the highways is really common to find these cars that are driving at the limit or lower, but that they are all together blocking all the lanes, if you are not gonna pass the car in front what are you doing there? The same applies to some truck drivers, by some reason they tough they are faster than the truck in front and then they try to pass it, maneuver that takes longer than expected, blocking the lane as result. So, yes I vote for raising both the min and max speed in the roads or leave it open with just a minimum one. Use the far left lane only to pass. Also , this doesn't apply to the speed, but to rigth of way, many drivers forget that when they are going into the Highway the drivers already there have the right of way, u should not expect that the one already there is gonna brake down fro let you come in.

  14. Regis
    December 16, 2013 #

    It all depends on the type of road I live in pa and i believe the 55-60 mph limits do not cut it and actually impead the flow of traffic. In my opinion on major highways 65-75 i feel is a good speed for major roadways and depending on the area even 80, but also with increased speed any mistakes or lack of good judgement usually have higher consequences. going faster has its cons as well if you make a mistake weather it be driver error, bad conditions, or animals running in the road , (living in pa the deer just love to run into the roads) your accident will be worse the faster you are going more likely.

  15. Beelzel
    December 16, 2013 #

    Reminds me, while we lived in Montana (a long time ago), the speed limit at night was 70… during the day it was "reasonable and proper."
    But then… you only saw a car or truck every 15 minutes or so on the opposing lane(s)

  16. Axel
    January 30, 2014 #

    60% of german highways (Autobahn) have no speed limit or variable limits depending on weather, traffic and whatever. Only 6% of people are killed on these streets and the most are accidents in rural areas where often the limit is 100 km/h or lower. There are many truck accidents, but they only drive 80 km/h …. Absolute speed is not dangerous, the relative speed is it …

  17. Ted Blackwell
    March 17, 2014 #

    I agree in most areas the speed limit is too low, but the real danger is disparity of speed. The German autobahn was mentioned as having no speed limit, but it was not mentioned there is strict enforcement of slower traffic keep right. There is no telling how much more traffic our interstates could carry at higher speeds if we could get the slower drivers to move to the right lane. I have frequently observed slower drivers in the high speed(left) lane that nothing short of being rammed would get them into the right lane,all the while with traffic either backed up for hundreds of yards or vehicles attempting to force their way into the right lane to get around these idiots. They just cruise along blithely ignoring the tail of vehicles behind them or traffic passing them on the right.
    And on another note,we have lowered speed limits in the middle of east bf nowhere just because they are near a Podunk town,most likely so the local PD can raise money for the town with increased ticket revenues.

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