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Jay Evensen: Raising speed limits in Utah makes good sense

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Opponents of higher speed limits like to pull out an environmental argument, as well. This goes along the lines that cars perform most efficiently at a speed of about 55 mph.

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Singer Sammy Hagar touched a chord with Americans 30 years ago when he sang, “I can’t drive 55!” It was one of the first counter-counter culture rock songs — an attack on something imposed in a misguided attempt to make the world better.

To me, the song always conjures memories of family vacations in the ‘70s, droning across a vast, empty Western wilderness with eyes fixed firmly on distant mountains that seemed days away.

But here’s a dirty little secret I can probably share now without incurring penalties: my family didn’t often keep the old Chevy at 55, unless Dad saw a trooper up ahead.

But had he been caught — and if memory serves, this happened a couple of times — he probably wouldn’t have gotten too far with the Highway Patrol by explaining that while, yes, he was exceeding the posted speed limit, he was in fact driving at the natural speed limit.

And yet that would have been accurate.

Now that the Utah Legislature has reconvened, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, has introduced a bill that would let the Utah Department of Transportation decide what that natural limit is and to, if necessary, raise speed limits to match it.

The empowering of UDOT engineers is important. When politicians set speed limits, they do so blindly, based either on the opinions of “experts” or on politics. UDOT, however, will make the decision based on engineering and safety studies. My prediction: expect to be able to legally drive 80 on more Utah highways.

By the way, the experts were telling Congress back in 1995 that to remove the nationwide 55 mph speed limit would be to increase highways deaths by 30 percent. This prompted one Democratic congressman from West Virginia to predict higher limits would turn the nation’s roadways into “killing fields.”

Congress didn’t listen. Nearly 20 years later highway deaths have fallen to levels not seen since Harry Truman was president, and Pol Pot is nowhere to be found.

And yet conventional wisdom remains wary about 80 mph. The old cliché, “Speed kills” still finds its way into casual conversation. I don’t need to predict there will be opposition to Dunnigan’s bill. We’ve already seen it on these pages and elsewhere.

The concerns are misguided. In fact, it is differential speed that kills. Studies, beginning with one in 2000 by researchers at the Auto Club of Southern California and the California Department of Motor Vehicles, show that higher limits don’t kill. Road conditions, highway construction and vehicle engineering combine to create a natural speed limit for each roadway. While a small number of drivers may behave irresponsibly, most drivers will gravitate toward this natural, safe limit. If a posted speed is too far below this natural limit, too many cars will be traveling at different speeds, with some trying to stay within the limit and others shooting for what feels natural.

This, researchers say, causes accidents. Other studies have identified this natural limit as the speed at which 85 percent of drivers travel during optimum driving conditions. That is why, for instance, accidents did not increase along stretches of I-15 that were raised to an 80 mph limit a few years ago. Nor did average speeds increase much, either.

Opponents of higher speed limits like to pull out an environmental argument, as well. This goes along the lines that cars perform most efficiently at a speed of about 55 mph.

This is mostly true. The Department of Energy says fuel efficiency peaks at between 35 and 60 mph, depending on the car. But while driving faster will use considerably more gas, the greatest inefficiencies come when the car is accelerating to the higher speed. Once there, it takes relatively little fuel to keep the car going at the higher speed.

But the efficiency argument is irrelevant. People will drive at a speed they consider safe, not matter how much gas they use.

Or, as Sammy Hagar put it: When I drive that slow, you know it's hard to steer; And I can't get my car out of second gear.”

We’ve already tried 55 on those long, empty stretches. Let’s not go back.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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