Before the state enacted the 70 mph speed limit on interstate highways in 2015, we suggested that officials monitor the results and provide a review within a year. In light of a Journal Sentinel article last week that showed fatalities, injuries and accidents spiked in the wake of the increase, we think that review is even more urgent.
At the time, we supported the hike in the speed limit, arguing that it would bring Wisconsin in line with neighboring states and that “raising the posted limit by 5 mph probably won’t make much difference one way or the other.”
But the figures show that assessment may have been too optimistic. In Saturday’s article, reporter Meg Jones noted that, “In the 12 months following Wisconsin’s switch to 70 mph on interstate highways starting in June 2015, fatalities rose 37 percent on the interstate, injuries increased by 11 percent and the total number of accidents rose 12 percent. In that time, 10 more people died, 208 more were injured and 1,057 more accidents were reported than the previous 12 months on interstate roads.”
Meanwhile on state highways in Wisconsin where the speed limit for the most part remained the same, “fatalities dropped by just under 2 percent, accidents with injuries declined by 0.3 percent and all accidents dipped 2 percent.”
That’s not conclusive evidence. There are lots of reasons for accidents, and speed is only one factor. Drunken driving is still a major issue in Wisconsin, and distracted driving — texting, calling, checking emails — has become a significant factor in causing accidents. Drivers are awfully reluctant to give up their phones even when they’re behind the wheel.
In addition, as the economy rebounds and gas prices remain low, the number of miles driven has gone up while, according to census figures, the number of 16-year-olds eligible for driver’s licenses has increased while older drivers are staying on the road longer, Jones reported.
And studies on the topic have offered mixed results: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that a new study by the group “shows that increases in speed limits over two decades have cost 33,000 lives in the U.S. In 2013 alone, the increases resulted in 1,900 additional deaths, essentially canceling out the number of lives saved by frontal air bags that year.” But a June 2013 Governing magazine article reported that Purdue University researchers found the likelihood of fatalities and serious injuries didn’t increase when Indiana raised its interstate speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph in 2005.
But speed adds a killing factor: “There’s no doubt speed kills. The faster you go the more likely you’ll be killed,” Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson, president of the Badger Sheriff’s Association, told Jones. “75 mph compared to 55 mph, it’s almost a third less reaction time and the average speed on the interstate is probably 75.”
And Nick Jarmusz of AAA Wisconsin told Jones that traveling 5 mph faster means much less time to respond to changes in traffic, such as backups. When crashes occur, the physics of a body traveling at a higher speed crashing into another object frequently results in serious injury or death.
Maybe the spike in fatalities, injuries and accidents was a one-year anomaly. Maybe it’s due to other factors such as more distracted and impaired driving. But if speed is a factor, citizens deserve to know that and state officials should provide them with that answer as best they can through a thorough study.
— From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel