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Will higher speed limit mean more deaths in Kansas?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 10, 2011, at 12:06 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 10, 2011, at 1:18 a.m.

Most drivers already drive 5 or 10 miles an hour faster than the speed limits posted along Kansas highways.

So Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Robert Baker is pretty sure what will happen if and when the new 75 mph speed limit approved last week by the Legislature goes into effect on selected divided, multilane highways.

Drivers will do 80 to 85.

"It's just human nature," he said.

The bill awaits Gov. Sam Brownback's signature. That could come by the end of this week, a spokesman for the governor said.

Kansas would join 13 other states that allow 75 mph travel on some roads, mostly rural sections of interstates. The top speed limit in Kansas has been 70 mph since 1996.

Critics say the new limit would lead to more accidents and fatalities on state highways. Whether that's true depends on which transportation studies you believe. There are plenty to support both sides.

Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, pushed for the new speed limit, arguing it would help make the state more economically competitive with surrounding states by making highways more attractive to vacation travelers and truckers.

Kleeb said Kansas is among only a handful of Western states with 70 mph speed limits on uncongested highways in rural areas.

Where it would change

The Kansas Department of Transportation will decide where the speed limit would be increased. Spokesman Steve Swartz said Transportation Secretary Deb Miller's inclination would be to change the limits on rural stretches of interstates, not on portions that run through urban areas, nor on full-access divided highways like K-96.

KDOT will look at crash histories of stretches of highways it is considering for the change, as well as factors such as hills and curves, Swartz said.

KDOT estimates a cost of $16,000 to $24,000 to rivet new aluminum sheets with "75" printed on them onto about 550 signs around the state.

The Kansas Turnpike Authority sets its own speed limits for the turnpike. Spokeswoman Lisa Callahan said KTA president and CEO Michael Johnston will consult with Miller to see what she plans to do, then make a recommendation to the KTA board.

"It's likely he would recommend increasing the speed limit," Callahan said, "but he wants to consult with the secretary first to see what they're going to do."

Higher speeds, more deaths

The new law should not lead to a change in insurance rates for motorists, said Bob Tomlinson, the state's assistant insurance commissioner.

"It's just 5 miles. It's not significant. I can't imagine there would be any effect whatsoever," he said.

The law stipulates that speeding tickets issued on freeways with the new limit would not be reported to insurance companies unless the driver's speed exceeded 85 mph. Current law carries the same notation but puts the speed at 80.

Adding 5 miles an hour to the speed limit is a bigger deal to the Kansas Highway Patrol. Baker said that any time speed goes up, a vehicle's kinetic energy goes up as well, leading to more accidents with greater impact and more severe injuries.

The new speed limit would be the first change in Kansas since March 1996, when the state raised limits from 65 to 70 on most rural separated multilane highways.

That came after the federal government returned authority to establish speed limits to the states in 1995. The U.S. Congress had mandated a 55 mph limit in 1974 after the Arab oil embargo. That limit lasted 13 years, until Congress voted in 1987 to allow speed limits of 65 mph on rural interstate highways. Kansas went from 55 to 65 that year.

Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that deaths on rural interstates increased 25 to 30 percent when states began increasing speed limits from 55 to 65 mph in 1987.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the institute, a nonprofit research group that is funded by automobile insurance companies to find ways to reduce crashes, said studies show a direct correlation between higher speeds and more highway deaths.

"It's a tradeoff. Higher speeds let us get to our destination faster, but it's not free. The cost is more deaths on those roads," he said.

A 2009 study into the long-term effects of the 1995 repeal of national speed limits found a 3 percent increase in fatalities on all road types, and a 9 percent increase on rural interstates, he said.

Studies show that even an increase of 5 mph results in more fatalities, Rader said.

A 2002 study by researchers in New Zealand evaluated the effects of increasing rural interstate speed limits in the U.S. from 65 mph to 70 or 75 mph.

They found states that increased limits from 65 to 75 experienced a 38 percent higher death rate on those roads. States that increased the limit to 70 experienced a 35 percent increase.

No link between speed and accidents

But proponents of the new law pointed to studies that showed no increase in crash rates when limits are raised.

In his testimony on the bill to the House Transportation Committee, Kleeb cited a number of studies, including one that showed no conclusive evidence linking higher speed limits to an increase in accidents, and another that indicated there has been a decreasing trend of fatalities for the past 14 years in states that have gone to a 75 mph limit.

Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Transportation on the day the bill was passed showed that national highway deaths last year were at the lowest level since 1949.

A study by researchers from KDOT, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas into the effect of the 1996 change to 70 mph — the last time the state raised the speed limit — found no statistically significant increases in crashes and fatality rates on rural or urban interstate highways as of 1998.

It found statistically significant increases of such crashes on two-lane rural highways where the limit had been raised to 65 mph, but concluded that the new limit wasn't solely responsible because there also were significantly more crashes on rural roads where the limit hadn't been changed.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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