Research by one of the most influential automotive safety organizations suggests that higher highway speed limits have resulted in a measurable increase in traffic deaths. While the number of injuries and fatalities from motor vehicle crashes continues to trend downward, the report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates that 33,000 traffic deaths over the past twenty years have been caused by higher speed limits. If the data in the report holds up, it would mean that the number of lives lost every year to higher speed limits roughly cancels out the number of lives saved by airbags.

A Speed Limit History Lesson

In response to a sharp increase in oil prices in 1973, the United States began imposing a federal speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour in 1974. The hope at the time was that this would result in reduced fuel consumption across the United States. Prior to this law, the federal government had stayed out of speed limit regulation, leaving states to set their own, some of which had been as high as eighty miles per hour. At least two states, in fact, had no imposed speed limit on many of their roads. States could choose to ignore the federal limit, but they would lose federal highway funds if they did.

By 1987, support for the fifty-five miles per hour limit began to falter. New legislation allowed states to increase their speed limits under certain circumstances, and some did so. In 1995, all federal restrictions were removed, and speed limit control reverted to the states. Several immediately raised their limits.

Faster, Not Safer

Over the years, several studies have been conducted to determine if speed limits make a significant difference in highway fatalities, and they’ve reached different conclusions. A few reports, including one in 1999 from the Cato Institute, went so far as to claim that higher speed limits actually saved lives. But these reports failed to take into account that improved auto safety features were reducing the fatality rate even faster, which skewed their conclusions. During those years, seat belt enforcement increased, antilock brakes were introduced, and airbags became commonplace.

Successive reports from the IIHS—three since 1987—make a strong case that high speed is dangerous. Shortly after the rules were first relaxed, the IIHS reported a sharp increase in highway deaths on rural interstates. In the first complete year after the 1995 repeal, the IIHS reported about a 15 percent increase in highway deaths in states which had raised their speed limits (against no change in states that left their limits alone). While the 2016 report does not mention the coincidence, there is an eerie correlation between the number of deaths attributed to higher speed limits and recent fatality figures: The number of highway deaths in the United States has hovered around 33,000 since 2009. The full IIHS report can be read here.

Residents of Utah should pay particular attention to the new IIHS report. Our state allows one of the highest limits—eighty miles per hour—on rural sections of I-15, I-80, and I-84. It might be unrelated, but Utah has seen a jump in highway fatalities since limits were raised in 2013.

Always Drive Safely

In a fifteen day stretch through early June, twenty-two motorists and passengers died on Utah roads. Speed was not the only factor, of course: Distracted driving and alcohol use are believed to have been involved in several of these crashes. But speed plays its part. In 2014, more than 9,000 car crash deaths nationwide—28 percent of the total that year—were blamed on excessive speed. The Utah Department of Public Safety’s annual report blamed 42 percent of the state’s 2014 traffic fatalities on speed. Especially when the posted speed limit is high, drivers should always be aware of the road, traffic, and weather conditions and reduce their speed accordingly to stay safe.

At Craig Swapp & Associates, we help the victims of motor vehicle accidents recover damages when another driver is at fault, or when the crash can be attributed to an unsafe road condition or other circumstance which should not have been allowed to develop. Give us a call to find out what we can do to help you. For a free consultation, simply call 1-800-404-9000 or contact us online. You can also talk to someone through the LiveChat feature at any time.

Written By: Ryan Swapp     Legal Review By: Craig Swapp