BOISE, Idaho -- A Michigan state trooper has a message for all those Idaho troopers prowling U.S. Highway 95 on the Lewiston Hill: Maybe you should consider raising the speed limit instead of writing reams of tickets.
Speaking to the Senate Transportation Committee Thursday, Lt. Thad Peterson said setting highway speed limits based on actual driving behavior not only increases compliance -- it often improves traffic safety.
"One way you know you have a bad speed limit is by looking at where all the police officers go," said Peterson, who is commander of the Michigan State Police Traffic Safety Services Division. "They perceive a speeding problem -- but it's only a speeding problem because you have a low number on the sign."
Since the early 1970s, Americans have been bombarded with phrases like "speed kills," "55 saves lives" and "drive 55, bring 'em back alive."
"The reason for that was so we could get people to buy into the national maximum speed limit of 55 that was implemented to try and save fuel because of the OPEC oil embargo in '73," Peterson said. "Since then, we've never gotten speed limits back up where they should be."
Improvements in vehicle suspensions, braking systems, tires and roadways allow people to drive safely at higher speeds today than they could in '74, he said.
Drivers are also adept at taking into account factors such as the road configuration, amount of traffic, weather conditions and proximity of homes and businesses.
"People are actually very good drivers," Peterson said. "There's a subconscious calculation that goes on in our brains. Our minds take all these factors, it all gets calculated and it feeds out through our throttle foot."
More to the point, he said, studies in Michigan and other states have found that raising speed limits -- basing them on actual driving speeds, rather than mystical traffic studies -- typically reduces traffic fatalities, lessens the severity of the accidents that do occur, and rarely leads to an increase in vehicle speeds.
"If you look at where your lowest risk of being involved in a crash is, it's just above the average speed, (at about) the 85th percentile," Peterson said. "If you drive at that speed, you have the lowest risk statistically of being involved in a crash. If you go a little above that, your risk will increase -- but not near as much as if you're one of the slow drivers."
With that in mind, Michigan has begun changing speed limits on hundreds of roads.
"Having speed limits set too low in many cases diminishes the safety of our roadways and can actually cause crashes because of (car versus truck) speed differentials or because of queues of traffic built up behind someone trying to drive at the speed limit," Peterson said. "When we get our speed limits set correctly -- which means we let our speed limits be set by the actual travel speeds of vehicles -- we maximize our compliance rates, have crash rates that are minimized and usually don't increase speeds dramatically, other than the lower-speed people, who we tend to bring up to the norm."
The result, he said, is Michigan's traffic fatality rate has dropped to a record low of less than 1 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Idaho's, by comparison, is 1.43 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles.
Peterson's presentation comes when the Legislature is considering a bill to eliminate the speed differential between trucks and cars.
Spence may be contacted at bspencelmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.
Visit the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho) at www.lmtribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services