States Should Consider Modest Increases in Speed Limits

November 30, 2011

Prior to the 1973 political oil crisis the speed limits in many states exceeded current levels.  As a result of the 1973 events the federal government instituted a 55 miles per hour (mph) speed limit.  This limit, in effect until 1988, required states to set 55 mph as their top speed limit or lose federal transportation funding.  With no national speed limit currently in effect states are free to raise their speed limits back to pre-1973 levels.  The benefits of doing so ought to be appealing to many state lawmakers, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation.

  • Americans currently obey speed limits that are far more stringent than international counterparts: parts of the Autobahn in Germany have no speed limits and rural speed limits in Poland and the United Arab Emirates are 87 mph, while Americans top out at 75.
  • Countering the claim by environmentalists that increasing the speed limit will decrease aggregate fuel efficiency, it is crucial to point out that the Department of Transportation found that the national 55 mph speed limit only decreased gasoline usage by 1 percent at most.
  • Furthermore, with proposed increases of 5 mph, the total impact if all states raise their speed limits would be a 0.3 percent increase in gasoline use.

An argument submitted by critics of raising limits is that it will hinder transportation safety efforts.  However, studies have shown that increasing speed limits will actually increase safety and decrease the likelihood of accidents.  These studies recognize that the true cause of many accidents is not high speeds but large differentials between low-speed and high-speed drivers.  For this reason, many engineering guidebooks recommend setting the speed limit at the rate at the 85th percentile of drivers.

Another argument is that increases in population density should extinguish desires to increase speed limits.  However, given that most recent population gains have been confined to urban and suburban areas, this argument does not address the policy benefits of increasing limits in rural areas.

Source: Baruch Feigenbaum, "States Should Consider Modest Increases in Speed Limits," Reason Foundation, November 21, 2011.

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