Despite fears that speeding up to 65 mph would lead to more traffic fatalities, there was one less death in Utah during the first year the higher speed limit was in effect than during the previous 12 months.
The news pleases and perplexes the state's public safety officials, who had hoped increased speed wouldn't mean increased deaths but aren't sure they understand why that happened."The biggest factor is that now people are driving with the flow of traffic," said Lt. Col. Herb Katz, assistant superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol.
"There will always be a percentage of drivers who are going to speed no matter what. The vast majority pick a comfortable speed, and that seems to be about 65," Katz said.
Beyond his observation that traffic seems to be moving more smoothly now that drivers are able to travel faster, Katz said state safety programs might have also helped keep the death toll down.
The Highway Patrol launched a new campaign, "Arrive Alive," to coincide with the switch to 65 that emphasized obeying speed limits, using seat belts, staying sober and having a better attitude.
The speed limit was raised on most of Utah's freeways in May 1987, except for several stretches along the more congested Wasatch Front. Between June 1987 and May 1988, there were 58 deaths on roads with the higher speed limit.
That compared to 59 deaths between June 1986 and May 1987, according to statistics compiled by the Utah Department of Public Safety. The number of accidents resulting in deaths during both 12-month periods was 52.
The total number of fatalities on all roads throughout the state also decreased between the two periods, from 322 during the year before the 65-mph speed limit took effect to 292 after.
An early study done after New Mexico went to the 65-mph limit in April 1987 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had showed that drivers had steadily increased their speeds beyond the new limit.
After the two-month study showed that nearly half of New Mexico's drivers were speeding, officials of the institute warned that the state's "unofficial speed limit" was 75 mph.
Katz said that the study had been done too soon after the change in the speed limit and that now most Western states have records similar to Utah's. He said the average speed of Utah vehicles is currently 61 mph.
The Utah Department of Transportation raised the speed limit to 65 mph on every road allowed under congressional guidelines, which do not allow the higher speed limit on roads in urban areas.
On I-15, the 65-mph limit is in effect south of Spring-ville, on a short stretch in north Utah County, a stretch just north of Centerville in Davis County, and from 12th Street in Ogden northward.
On I-80, 65 mph is permitted west of 56th West to the Nevada state line and from the mouth of Parleys Canyon east to the Wyoming state line. All other stretches of freeways in Salt Lake County, including I-215, remain posted at 55 mph.