Plenty of American states have higher speed limits than we do and they’re doing just fine. Is there evidence that their roads are any more dangerous than ours? I think they’re probably safer because the limits are set at the speeds people actually drive at. – Regan, Oshawa
Furious that you can’t go as fast as our neighbours down south? It turns out that higher speed limits in the United States might not mean safer roads.
“They’re not doing just fine,” says Mohamed Hussein, assistant professor of engineering at McMaster University. “Their fatality rate for 2016 was double ours.”
According to a 2019 World Health Organization report on road safety, the U.S. saw 11.6 traffic-related deaths for every 100,000 people in 2016. In Canada, that number was 5.8.
“That’s not all because of speed, but you can’t say that roads are safer there,” Hussein says.
According to a report from 2017, there were 9,717 deaths from crashes that resulted from at least one driver going over the posted limit or going too fast for conditions. That’s 26 per cent of all crash deaths that year, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The need for speed?
The question, of course, is how high do the speed limits get?
In 1995, the U.S. Congress repealed a federal law which had required a 65 mph (105 km/h) national maximum speed limit. Until 1987, that top limit had been 55 mph (88 km/h).
The repeal allowed states to start setting their own top limits – and they’ve been going up ever since.
Now, 22 states have top speed limits of 70 mph (112 km/h), 12 states have limits of 75 mph (121 km/h) and seven states – Idaho, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming – have top limits of 80 mph (129 km/h).
In Texas, there’s even an 85 mph (137 km/h) limit on a 41-mile (66-kilometre) stretch of the Highway 130 toll road.
How does that compare to here?
Right now, British Columbia is the only Canadian province with a 120 km/h top speed limit. It was introduced in 2014. But, last year, B.C. had to roll back speeds on certain roads after a study showed that crashes had more than doubled.
Ontario is set to test 110 km/h limits on three sections of 400-series highways as part of a pilot this fall. That will match the 110 km/h top speed in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
37,000 added deaths?
That hike in speed limits in 41 states likely caused roughly 37,000 extra deaths – deaths that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, says Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) chief researcher Chuck Farmer.
To get that number, Farmer looked at annual traffic fatalities per mile travelled for each state between 1993 and 2017.
He filtered out other factors that affect road fatalities, including rates of seatbelt use and changes in unemployment.
The numbers showed that a 5 mph (8 km/h) increase in the maximum speed limit was associated with an 8 per cent increase in the fatality rate on Interstates and freeways – the roads most likely to have the maximum limit.
While overall fatalities were down by almost two per cent in 2017 after two years of increases, Farmer estimates that more than 1,900 of the 37,133 people killed that year would still be alive if speed limits had stayed at 65 mph (105 km/h).
Farmer also questions the logic behind raising speed limits, pointing to research that shows drivers tend to keep speeding even after speed limits are raised.
“There are drivers who will always want to go as fast as they can,” he told Globe Drive last year.
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