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Author Topic: Higher Speed Limits, Greater Safety
Daruma28
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This article from todays WSJ is the classic example that demonstrates how so many proponents of a policy will make shrill declarations of doom mongering and catastrophe turn out to be so wrong...

quote:
Safe at Any Speed
With higher speed limits, our highways have been getting safer.

Friday, July 7, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

It's another summer weekend, when millions of families pack up the minivan or SUV and hit the road. So this is also an apt moment to trumpet some good, and underreported, news: Driving on the highways is safer today than ever before.

In 2005, according to new data from the National Highway Safety Administration, the rate of injuries per mile traveled was lower than at any time since the Interstate Highway System was built 50 years ago. The fatality rate was the second lowest ever, just a tick higher than in 2004.

As a public policy matter, this steady decline is a vindication of the repeal of the 55 miles per hour federal speed limit law in 1995. That 1974 federal speed limit was arguably the most disobeyed and despised law since Prohibition. "Double nickel," as it was often called, was first adopted to save gasoline during the Arab oil embargo, though later the justification became saving lives. But to Westerners with open spaces and low traffic density, the law became a symbol of the heavy hand of the federal nanny state. To top it off, Congress would deny states their own federal highway construction dollars if they failed to comply.

In repealing the law, the newly minted Republican majority in Congress declared that states were free to impose their own limits. Many states immediately took up this nod to federalism by raising their limits to 70 or 75 mph. Texas just raised its speed limit again on rural highways to 80.

This may seem non-controversial now, but at the time the debate was shrill and filled with predictions of doom. Ralph Nader claimed that "history will never forgive Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life." Judith Stone, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, predicted to Katie Couric on NBC's "Today Show" that there would be "6,400 added highway fatalities a year and millions of more injuries." Federico Pena, the Clinton Administration's Secretary of Transportation, declared: "Allowing speed limits to rise above 55 simply means that more Americans will die and be injured on our highways."

We now have 10 years of evidence proving that the only "assault" was on the sanctity of the truth. The nearby table shows that the death, injury and crash rates have fallen sharply since 1995. Per mile traveled, there were about 5,000 fewer deaths and almost one million fewer injuries in 2005 than in the mid-1990s. This is all the more remarkable given that a dozen years ago Americans lacked today's distraction of driving while also talking on their cell phones.

Of the 31 states that have raised their speed limits to more than 70 mph, 29 saw a decline in the death and injury rate and only two--the Dakotas--have seen fatalities increase. Two studies, by the National Motorists Association and by the Cato Institute, have compared crash data in states that raised their speed limits with those that didn't and found no increase in deaths in the higher speed states.

Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, says that by the early 1990s "compliance with the 55 mph law was only about 5%--in other words, about 95% of drivers were exceeding the speed limit." Now motorists can coast at these faster speeds without being on the constant lookout for radar guns, speed traps and state troopers. Americans have also arrived at their destinations sooner, worth an estimated $30 billion a year in time saved, according to the Cato study.

The tragedy is that 43,000 Americans still die on the roads every year, or about 15 times the number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq. Car accidents remain a leading cause of death among teenagers in particular. The Interstate Highway System is nonetheless one of the greatest public works programs in American history, and the two-thirds decline in road deaths per mile traveled since the mid-1950s has been a spectacular achievement. Tough drunk driving laws, better road technology, and such improving auto safety features as power steering and brakes are all proven life savers.

We are often told, by nanny-state advocates, that such public goods as safety require a loss of liberty. In the case of speed limits and traffic deaths, that just isn't so.

Anecdotally speaking, I think the statistic cited about 95% of the driving populace regularly broke the 55mph speed limit is probably true. Even the most civic minded, law abiding citizens I know admitted to frequently speeding.

I myself just drove from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on Tuesday going 80 mph almost the entire way. It only took me 4 hours...that same trip would have taken 6 and a half hours going 55. And at no time did it even feel remotely unsafe that I was driving that fast on the long, straight desert road.

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LoverOfJoy
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The ideal speed for fuel efficiency has probably changed since 1974, too. It wouldn't surprise me if cars nowadays save gas by going faster than 55 on highways.
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Dave at Work
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Wait a minute. Neither Las Vegas nor Los Angeles is in Hawaii. [Smile] What are you trying to pull here Daruma?
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KnightEnder
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I talked my self out of a ticket one day by explaining to the officer that it was a long deserted stretch of highway on sunny clear day and I was paying attention and late for my son's tee-ball game. Cool cop, stupid law, he gave me a warning.

KE

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KnightEnder
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Daruma, you came to the mainland and didn't even come by and say hi? [Frown]

KE

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DonaldD
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Tough drunk driving laws do not entail loss of liberty, and did not entail nanny-state intervention? Mandatory seat belt use legislation is not nanny-statist either? Mandatory airbag legislation - no?

Since 1995, seat belt use has increased from 68% to 78%.

Airbags have been mandatory in passenger cars since (coincidence?) 1998.

Does this guy really think he can take a single statistic and twist it into support for his position by cherry picking the factors he presents in (and more importantly, excludes from) his article?

If all he wanted to say was "higher speeds on interstate roads and major, straight line highways probably haven't increased fatality rates significantly" that would be one thing. To claim that higher speeds have no effect whatsoever, and to quote statistics out of context to support that position seems dishonest, unless that is he's not simply too dumb to realize he's doing it in the first place.

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Daruma28
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Well, I had to attend a wedding of some long time friends in Vegas, and my in-laws live there. I was only there for the weekend.

My wife works for Hawaiian air, and we were flying standby.

The flight on Tuesday at 2:45am was oversold, so we couldn't get on it, so we immediately rented a car and drove to LA to catch the morning flight out to get home. If my wife fails to show up for work because she was stuck at an airport trying to fly standby, our benefits will get suspended for 6 months...so we had no choice but to make that drive at 3:00am.

Sorry about not being able to visit KE, but my weekend in Vegas was REALLY hectic with the wedding as well as in-law family obligations. I still have not recovered fully from the complete lack of sleep for 6 days straight...

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Daruma28
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So Donald, I take it you always drive 55mph since it's SO SAFE...right?

lol

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Wayward Son
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Certainly one truth has not been changed: crashes at higher speeds are more deadly than those at lower speeds. It's basic physics, and no one has been able to repeal those laws. [Smile]

So any saving of lives has come from better automobile construction, better tires, and other factors other than the speed limit. And perhaps many of the deaths during the 55 MPH speed limit were due to people breaking the law.

But the base reality--that driving slower is safer than driving faster--has not changed.

And if everyone drove at 55 MPH maximum than at the current speed limits, there would have been fewer deaths.

You don't need any statistic to prove that. Just a basic understanding of physics and common sense.

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Daruma28
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Bah. I think chronically slow drivers that fail to speed up when merging, inattentive drivers and distracted drivers are far more dangerous than a speeding driver paying close attention to their driving.

Of course crashes at higher speeds are deadlier...but than, what is more likelier? Accidents on freeways were there is a physical median seperating oncoming traffic or urban roads and streets with only a painted line seperating opposing traffic, a host of stop and go situations, intersections and merges?

I still bet that most fatal accidents occur due to driver error in a more per capita dense area of traffic than from speeders on long deserted stretches of interstate highway.

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DonaldD
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Err.. no, Daruma, but I don't claim that driving faster than 100 kph is actually safer, or that only non-nanny-state changes in the past 50 years had any effect on driver safety.

To claim such is just sticking his head in the sand. I bet he would freak if we tried to convince him that litigation against the car industry was an even bigger factor in reducing road fatalities, too.

You should note that I didn't disagree with a thing that you said, just that this guy's reasoning isn't worthy of a grade schooler.

[ July 07, 2006, 05:36 PM: Message edited by: DonaldD ]

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Daruma28
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Also Donald, the overall point of the article is not that higher speed limits are directly correlated to the decline in fatalities....just that the statistics have proven that all of the scaremongering naysayers that predicted a spike in traffic deaths once the Federally imposed 55mph was repealed have certainly not materialized.

The arguments of Nader et al were that simply raising the speed limits would directly result in higher fatalities. That has not happened - regardless of whatever reasons may be for that, the fact remains: Federally mandated 55mph proponents claimed that fatalities would rise once it was repealed. They were wrong.

Spin that all you want, they were the ones making the claim of direct correlation between higher speed limits and fatalities.

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DonaldD
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Daruma, I never disputed that claim - but what I see in this article are two points:

a) Nader et al were wrong (arguably true, but his argument doesn't take into account the myriad other conflicting factors) and
b) Here is another example a "nanny state" intervention entailing loss of liberty that serves no purpose.

I really don't have time to go into the psychology behind that one paragraph right now, so let me know if you want me to expand on it later.

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Daruma28
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No need...I get were you're coming from, since you are a nanny state advocate... [Wink]
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LoverOfJoy
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quote:
Since 1995, seat belt use has increased from 68% to 78%.

Airbags have been mandatory in passenger cars since (coincidence?) 1998.

Does this guy really think he can take a single statistic and twist it into support for his position by cherry picking the factors he presents in (and more importantly, excludes from) his article?

If all he wanted to say was "higher speeds on interstate roads and major, straight line highways probably haven't increased fatality rates significantly" that would be one thing. To claim that higher speeds have no effect whatsoever, and to quote statistics out of context to support that position seems dishonest, unless that is he's not simply too dumb to realize he's doing it in the first place.

Here's the pertinent quote:

quote:
Two studies, by the National Motorists Association and by the Cato Institute, have compared crash data in states that raised their speed limits with those that didn't and found no increase in deaths in the higher speed states.
Maybe people wear seat belts more than they used to but he didn't just compare over time. He compared between states that raised the speed limit and those that didn't. Change in seat belt use is irrelevant unless you're arguing that the reason the faster driving states aren't less safe is because they wear seat belts more.

Maybe he overstated his case but it seems like fairly strong evidence that a one size fits all law for all states wasn't necessary for safety reasons. Some states have longer stretches of flat straight highways. It doesn't make sense to require they have the same speed limit as states with much worse road conditions.

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LoverOfJoy
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quote:
a) Nader et al were wrong (arguably true, but his argument doesn't take into account the myriad other conflicting factors) and
What are the myriad of other conflicting factors? Both states that upped their speed limit and those that didn't were compared. This should control for most if not all other changes that occurred over time.

If the only statistic he quoted was that fatalities went down in states that increased the speed limit, I'd agree with you. Perhaps fatalities would have gone down MORE if they hadn't increased the speed limit. But the additional statistic comparing states makes that argument less convincing. Those states didn't increase their speed limit and they didn't have a greater drop in fatalities.

Of course you can always look at things more deeply. There may always be some other reason the states didn't differ from each other. But I can't think of a myriad of other factors.

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Fel2.0
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Driving at 55 or 65 (80 in my case) are all equally safe. It is CRASHING that is dangerous. And crashing is much less likely when the speeds on the Freeway vary between 65 and 80 versus 55 and 80 (it is easier to avoid a car in front of you if the difference in velocity is 15 mph vs. 25 mph). When enacting a law, you need to look at not just some blind statistic (deadliness of crashes at 55 versus 65) but how it is actually being implemented in real life.
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Jesse
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Yes Fel, part of the reason differential speed limits for Trucks are fatal. The CHP refuses to enforce the CA 55 mph speed limit in non-urban areas where the auto limit is 70. They will often tack it on if they bust a truck for something else though.

Laws that are impossible to enforce benefit no one.

LoJ-
As far as fuel economy goes, that's a matter of gearing. Friction still exists. A car geared to cruise at 70 will get better milage at that speed than if it where cruising at 55, but all other things being equal, it would get even better milage cruising 55 had it been designed for it.

My Truck gets 8.1 mpg grossed out at 80,000 lbs in Arizona with the cruise set at 75, 7.4 in California with the cruise set at 60. That's because of the way it's geared.

[ July 07, 2006, 08:22 PM: Message edited by: Jesse ]

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Fel2.0
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They don't enforce the 55 mph speed limit for trucks in urban areas either!
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Jesse
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No, they give us 65 most of the time, but downtown urban areas, you're taking a big risk to break 60. Remember though, they give autos 75 in a 65 most of the time.
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Eric
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I'll have to look up the stats at some point, but I'm willing to bet that in Germany, where there are long stretches of the autobahn with no speed limits, they have fewer highway deaths than here in the US. I'm not sure how it's measured...deaths per capita or deaths per passenger-mile, or whatever.

The big difference between Germany and the US is that Germans take driving very seriously, they pay through the nose to get properly trained and licensed, and they don't even let you get licensed until you're 18.

If we'd just teach people here how to drive we'd probably find that driving fast and driving safely don't have to be mutually exclusive.

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Ron Lambert
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Good point, Fel2.0. I think it is likely that the real cause of accidents when the double nickel ruled was the disparity in speeds when most of the traffic is flowing at 70 and 80, and a few people are resolutely adhering to the speed limit. Such slowpokes who fail to keep up with traffic flow create an impediment, that meakes impatient drivers swerve around them.

When everyone can travel 75 or so, that is sufficient for most, and those who travel more than 80 or 85 are relatively few.

[ July 08, 2006, 08:34 PM: Message edited by: Ron Lambert ]

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Dagonee
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quote:
But the additional statistic comparing states makes that argument less convincing. Those states didn't increase their speed limit and they didn't have a greater drop in fatalities.

Of course you can always look at things more deeply. There may always be some other reason the states didn't differ from each other. But I can't think of a myriad of other factors.

One very likely factor is average traffic density.
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ngthagg
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"I think it is likely that the real cause of accidents when the double nickel ruled was the disparity in speeds when most of the traffic is flowing at 70 and 80, and a few people are resolutely adhering to the speed limit" I agree with this completely. The safest driving occurs when everyone is moving at the same speed. When everyone drives at the same speed, you can easily maintain a constant distance to the car in front of you (key for avoiding obstacles on the road, and ensuring a safe stopping distance), and your eyes are drawn to any change in speeds between the vehicles which might indicate an accident situation.

If maintaining similar speeds is important, then it is just a question of what speed to choose. Most people will choose an appropriate speed based on road conditions, road surface, amount and sharpness of corners, etc. States can easily analyze traffic for a day and determine a good speed. As long as they don't have an arbitrary upper limit, they can choose speed limits to best suit their roads.

Sidenote: I love how Texas has the highest speed limit listed in the article. Texans couldn't get away from their cliches even if they wanted to.

Sidenote 2: Based on my own observations, plus the observations of my parents, who drive long-haul trucks for a living, the best way to get through slow traffic is easy: never change lanes, and never stop moving. Obviously you can't follow these 100%, but do them as much as you can. Next time you are in busy traffic, mark a car that's trying to dart through traffic and see who ends up ahead.

ngthagg

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Automath
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I suspect the too-low-for-me speed limits around here are to give those people with rackety cars with horrible acceleration (because they can't afford better... yet!) a chance to get their kids to school and such. That is, without the danger of being caught mid-accelleration turning into a major road with the car screwing up. And other stuff like that.

[ July 09, 2006, 05:09 AM: Message edited by: Automath ]

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Automath
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I could also argue that roads with higher (and no) speed limits are less likely to have faulty more-likely-to-crash cars even try to get onto them... such as the autobahn.

[ July 09, 2006, 07:09 AM: Message edited by: Automath ]

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velcro
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Lover wrote
quote:
What are the myriad of other conflicting factors? Both states that upped their speed limit and those that didn't were compared. This should control for most if not all other changes that occurred over time.
So you think that people in Texas wear seatbelts as often as those in Connecticut, where it is required by law? What is the percentage of older cars or trucks that don't have airbags? What is the blood alcohol level for drunk driving, or the minimum penalty? Trees on the side of the road, or winding mountain roads? You don't expect any correlation with state?

Another factor, if we are talking about no significant increase of fatalities. If you already have 150 fatalities per million passenger miles (for example), raising the speed limit might not show a blip. If you have 1 fatality per million passenger miles, it may make a big difference.

There are a boatload of factors that need to be analyzed before you can make the assumption that changes are controlled for.

As far as velocity disparity, Granny will be doing 40 on the interstate no matter what. Tell me how raising the speed limit to 80 will help this?

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Gaoics79
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I always took it for granted that a higher speed limit would tend to increase fatalities. It does seem to make common sense. But then again, this article was fairly (although not totally) convincing.

I would be very interested to know what the auto insurance industry thinks about this. They have a direct financial incentive to keep motor vehicle accident related death and injury to an absolute minimum, and have no nanny state ideology clouding the issue.

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Fel2.0
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Because FEWER people will be going slower. If say 25% of drivers will always drive within 5 mph of the speed limit, raising it helps.

And if granny is doing 40 she will be run off the freeway really, really quickly.

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velcro
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Say 25% of drivers drive within 5mph of the speed limit. How does raising it help?

If the other 75% shift up accordingly, there is no change in the velocity disparity, then it does not help. If any of the 75% (like Granny) don't shift up, then it gets worse.

Not to mention that reaction distance decreases with higher speeds. If the car 100 feet in front of me slams on his brakes, I would much prefer we are both doing 55 vs. 80. Even if we decellerate equally at both speeds, I have a lot more time to react at 55.

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Dagonee
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quote:
Say 25% of drivers drive within 5mph of the speed limit. How does raising it help?
I think he assumed the rest just sped as they saw fit.

quote:
If the other 75% shift up accordingly
I doubt this happens. Lots of people drive 75 in a 55. Far fewer drive 95 in a 75 or even 100 in an 80.
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FiredrakeRAGE
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Speaking for myself, that is perfectly true. When the speed limit is 65, on a wide open highway (I-80, for example), I tend to drive somewhere between 84 and 89 miles per hour.

When the speed limit is 70, I generally drive between 79 and 84 miles per hour.

My reasoning is simply that if I'm going to get a 4 point ticket, I might as well get where I'm going [Smile]

--Firedrake

[ July 09, 2006, 06:27 PM: Message edited by: FiredrakeRAGE ]

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Fel2.0
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My point being there is a natural speed that most people drive. For some, it will be based on the speed limit. For others it won't be. Most of the speed limit where I drive is 65 or 70. I will normally drive between 75 - 80 weather and traffic permitting. My speed driving is independant of the speed limit (except when the CHP is around). Where I drive, an overwelming majority of the traffic drives 65 - 80 mph. When the speed limit was 55, the overwelming majority drove 55 to 80. 25 vs. 15, you tell me which is safer.
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velcro
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I agree - if the faster people don't just add 20 mph, the velocity disparity is smaller. But if those comfortable at 55 don't add 20 mph either, the velocity disparity may not improve. Without data of what really happens, it is just handwaving for both of us.

However, the energy of a collision as a function of velocity, and reaction time as a function of velocity both favor lower speeds, without question.

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LoverOfJoy
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quote:
So you think that people in Texas wear seatbelts as often as those in Connecticut, where it is required by law?
It's required by law in both states. In fact, all but New Hampshire require wearing safety belts. If you were comparing just two states and one of them was New Hampshire, then I'd be concerned about this factor.

quote:
What is the percentage of older cars or trucks that don't have airbags? What is the blood alcohol level for drunk driving, or the minimum penalty? Trees on the side of the road, or winding mountain roads? You don't expect any correlation with state?
This may be true to some extent. My guess is that when you're looking at multiple states it will tend to average out, though. If anything, on MOST factors I'd guess that the states that raised their speed limit had worse conditions (rural areas probably have older cars on average...states that are more lax with speed limits more likely to be lax with alcohol levels...etc.) It's true that the states that raised speed limits likely had more highways that are straight with less trees/mountains near the highways but that just goes further to prove the point that the the 55mph law shouldn't have been a federal one when different states have different conditions.
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KnightEnder
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I totally agree with Fel.

And it is the law that you wear a seatbelt in Texas. I've gotten where if I don't put it on immediately I feel naked.

KE

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FiredrakeRAGE
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LoverOfJoy said:
quote:
If anything, on MOST factors I'd guess that the states that raised their speed limit had worse conditions (rural areas probably have older cars on average...states that are more lax with speed limits more likely to be lax with alcohol levels...etc.)
I have to disagree there. While the cars may be older, many people in rural areas can perform basic car repair. That tends to allow them to spot safety issues before they become threatening.

--Firedrake

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velcro
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Sorry about my assumption with Texas. Only about half the states have "primary" seat belt laws, where you can be stopped for not having a seat belt. The others can only ticket you if they have stopped you for something else. It makes a difference in compliance.

NHTSA

I'm not arguing that everyone should have 55 mph laws. I am arguing that in most cases going faster is not safer. In Nevada, the effect may be negligible, but that does not mean that New Jersey should go to 70, as the article seems to imply.

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javelin
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I guess I'd disagree that the article is trying to imply that. I thought the article was trying to imply that those who said that allowing the speed limit to be higher would cause more deaths were absolutely, and clearly, wrong.
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flydye45
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Not to derail, but at least one auto magazine I breezed through stated that airbags had almost no affect on car fatality statistics. Anyone heard similar?
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