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 When the U.S. repealed federal speed limit controls in 1995, the result was a 3.2 percent jump in road fatalities over the next 10 years.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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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.