Highway Speeds: Suggestion or the Law?
Raising the Limit: Recent Trends
In the past few years, states have been raising their speed limit levels on a lot of their highways. This has led to intense debate over whether or not raising the speed limit has made the roads safer or more dangerous. Research has turned up mixed results.
Almost anyone will notice that on any road, that the average driver is often driving up to 5 miles above the speed limit. While raising the speed limit reduces the number of drivers exceeding the speed limit, overall the actual speed that vehicles are traveling also increases. For example, in Utah, when the speed limit was changed from 75 miles an hour to 80 miles an hour, the actual speed of vehicles on the highway rose from 83 miles an hour to 85 miles an hour, although overall there was a 20% reduction in vehicles exceeding the newly posted limit of 80mph. Despite the increase in speed however, crashes actually declined in the test zones. The research further determined a decrease in the number of crashes by 11%.
New Hampshire has followed suit on some of its highways to increase the speed limit to the speeds that most drivers had been driving anyways. As of January 1, 2014, the speed limit on I-93 was raised from 65mph to 70mph excluding the portion of I-93 through Franconia Notch. On January 1, 2015, the speed limit was increased from 55 mph to 65mph on the Spaulding Turnpike between exit 9 in Dover and exit 16 in Rochester. 
Many factors come into play when a state decides to raise some of the speed limits. There is increased pressure from the trucking industry as well as political motivation by lawmakers to please the voter base which often supports a higher speed limit. Safety advocates however, are concerned by the trend. While research may not provide data demonstrating an increase in accident, the advocates claim that the severity of each accident increases due to the laws of physics – the faster the speed, the harder the impact.
Back in 1974 as part of the oil crisis, the federal government lowered the speed limit to 55mph to lower fuel consumption. Subsequently the limits were raised and in 1995, the states gained full authority to set their own speed limits. Fuel Economy.gov reports that "You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.15 per gallon for gas" . Therefore, it is more expensive to the driver to drive at the higher speed limits. It is interesting that the speed limit increases also come at a time when many drivers own fuel efficient cars or hybrids and so much of the state’s road repair revenue comes from a gasoline tax. Clearly by allowing drivers to driver faster, the state is able to collect more money in gas tax because the drivers would burn through fuel faster.
The Hazards of Habit
In my opinion, one of the most hazardous consequences of raising the speed limits is that drivers get into the habit of driving at the higher speeds. This creates two problems. First, it takes more conscious effort for a driver to slow down on the secondary roads once they have exited the highway. Secondly, when the weather conditions are bad and the department of transportation lowers the speed limit to 45mph on all highways, very few vehicles heed the new speed limit. On a recent trip on I-95 from Maine into New Hampshire, I was traveling in winter weather conditions and the electronic signs alongside the highway warned drivers of the lowered speed limit of 45mph and that snow plows were on the road for winter storm clean up. Despite the new speed limit and the warnings, other vehicles continued to barrel down the road at speeds of 60mph or more with little regard for the warnings or the hazardous conditions.
What happens when drivers don’t heed the warnings? Multiple car crashes, spinouts, and traffic jams. The first weekend of January 2015, the New Hampshire State police responded to more than 125 crashes on Saturday night alone! A man was killed on Interstate 293 in Manchester, NH Saturday morning after being thrown from his pickup truck after losing control of his vehicle.  Leading up to the weekend, there was a massive pileup on I-93 in Ashland, NH after a squall caused white out conditions. Drivers lost control and visibility. A tractor trailer truck caught up in the crash caught fire.   WMUR reported that 12 people were injured and the crash involved 35 vehicles.  Despite the bad road conditions on Friday and Saturday, drivers still had not gotten the message on Monday morning when a multi-car crash occurred on Route 101 in Auburn at exit 2. The crash involved five vehicles and resulted in minor injuries. Shortly thereafter another crash occurred in Candia at exit 3. 
The speed limit is the maximum speed one can drive in perfect road conditions. When the weather is bad or there is ice or snow on the roads, it is common sense to slow down. When the DOT reduces the speed limit to 45mph on area highways, it is mandatory to slow down. And yet, many drivers continue to drive on the highways as though it was any other day and they could continue to go the speed limit. This is where increased speed limits on highways pose additional risk. The faster your vehicle is traveling, the more time you need to stop to avoid another vehicle or animal or object in the road. As the driver of the vehicle, you are responsible for maintaining control of your vehicle at all times, keeping a safe distance between you and the driver in front of you, and keeping an eye out for any hazards in the roadway.
One would hope that the first weekend of 2015 would serve as a warning to New Hampshire drivers that winter is finally here and everyone needs to slow down irrelevant of what the posted speed limit may be. Sadly, it appears that very few heeded the warning. This morning, Friday January 9th, a small snow storm arrived bringing with it frigid temperatures which made it difficult to near impossible to treat the roadways. WMUR predicted this and broadcasted warnings since yesterday but very few listened. This resulted in multiple car crashes during the morning commute including a car spin out on I-93 near exit 5, a multi-car crash on the Everett Turnpike in Merrimack estimated to include at least 10 vehicles, another crash on the Everett Turnpike near exit 4 and exit 7 in Nashua, a snow plow and vehicle accident on Route 28 bypass in Manchester, a multi-car crash in I-293 in Manchester, and those are only the ones which have been reported thus far. 
The speed limit has been lowered to 45mph on I-93, I-89, I-293, Route 101, the Spaulding Turnpike and the Everett Turnpike. Hopefully drivers will heed the warning and slow down to avoid additional crashes over the morning.
Suggestion or the Law?
While it appears that many drivers take highway speeds to be a suggestion, often going over the limit by several miles per hour and/or ignoring reduced speed limits in bad weather, the laws which created those limits were put into place for a reason – to protect those using our public roadways and to keep the public safe. By ignoring the posted limits, drivers are not only breaking the law but are putting other drivers who are using the same roadway at risk. The speed limit is not a suggestion. It has a purpose – to get you safely to your destination.
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Gas Pump Photo: photo credit: Sean Munson via photopin cc