Realistic speed limits way to go
Before 1973, a number of states had maximum speed limits of 70 or even 75 mph on their highways. Then, in 1973, the federal government approved the Emergency Highway Conservation Act, as a result of the energy crisis gripping the nation. The national maximum speed limit was reset to 55 mph on interstates. It wasn’t until November 1995 that the federal government, via the National Highway System Designation Act, returned authority over speed limits to the states.
Today, the maximum speed limits vary from state to state — from a low of 60 mph in Hawaii to a high of 85 mph in a small section of Texas. Most states out West have adopted a maximum speed limit of 75 mph. Maryland joins a handful of states in the Northeast and Midwest, along with Oregon, toward the maximum’s low end — 65 mph. Then, there’s the relatively new Intercounty Connector, which currently runs from Interstate 270 in Montgomery County to Interstate 95 in Prince George’s County (with plans to stretch to Route 1) and sports a Neanderthal speed limit of 55 mph.
Now, HB 223, with sponsors from all parts of the state, is calling for a maximum allowable highway speed limit in Maryland of 70 mph. The speed limit on the ICC would go up 15 mph. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Feb. 5.
Sen. Jennie Forehand (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville has separate emergency legislation in the hopper that would raise the ICC’s speed limit to 60 mph. A hearing on that bill is scheduled for Feb. 7.
In the meantime, the Maryland Transportation Authority is conducting a study of single-vehicle accidents on the ICC. The findings, which are expected in February, could help determine the roadway’s eventual speed limit.
In September, average weekday traffic on the western segment of the ICC totaled more than 35,000 vehicles a day; on the eastern end, the figure was a more modest 26,000 vehicles. In October, MdTA Executive Secretary Harold M. Bartlett said traffic was higher than projected on the western and center segments but slightly lower than projected on the eastern end. Still, anyone traveling the ICC, particularly at night, knows that a ride can be a lonely experience.
Two chief sponsors of the House bill, Dels. Aruna Miller (D-Dist. 15) of Darnestown and Neil C. Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, held a news conference Thursday to spell out their case for the higher statewide speed limit. Besides their bipartisan collaboration, what’s of particular note is that they’re both transportation engineers.
Miller this week told The Gazette she has received three main complaints from constituents regarding the ICC: Its speed limit is too low; its toll is too high (currently $4, end-to-end, during rush hours for two-axle vehicles), and speed enforcement is “excessive.”
Understandably, fatalities and the severity of injuries tend to rise when accidents occur at higher speeds, but a 5-mph increase in the speed limit doesn’t typically result in a significant change in driving speeds, according to some studies. And, safety should improve with more motorists driving at similar speeds. Also, past concerns about fuel consumption are less of a concern nowadays with more-efficient vehicles.
AAA Mid-Atlantic won’t be taking a position on the bills, but when maximum speed limits are appropriately applied, they improve motorists’ mobility, safety and respect for the law, spokeswoman Ragina Averella said.
Those factors would make an increase in the ICC’s speed limit practically a no-brainer. And a rise in the overall highway limit to 70 mph — the speed at which many drivers seem comfortable these days — deserves serious consideration.