Interstate death toll rises with higher speed limit
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
April 26, 2006
Iowa had 47 traffic deaths on rural interstate highways last year, the most since 1973. More than half of those fatalities occurred after the speed limit was raised to 70 mph, a state report shows.
Lawmakers raised the speed limit on Iowa's rural interstate highways from 65 to 70 mph on July 1, 2005, following years of debate about whether such a move would cause more deaths. In the first six months with faster speeds, 25 people died in rural interstate crashes, compared with 12 people who died on Iowa's interstates from July through December 2004.
"Every time we have increased the speed limit, we get an increase in traffic crashes and fatalities. So certainly there is a correlation," said Scott Falb, a safety planner for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Even before the 70 mph speed limit took effect, state reports showed a growing number of motorists ignoring the 65 mph limit.
Overall, Iowa had 452 traffic deaths in 2005, up 16 percent from 388 deaths in 2004, state records show.
An Iowa DOT study has shown that traffic deaths have increased in all of Iowa's neighboring states after speed limits were raised above 65 mph. This includes more traffic fatalities in Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota. At the same time, traffic deaths declined over the same period in neighboring states that didn't raise speed limits, including Illinois and Wisconsin.
Jeremy Nikel of Pleasant Hill, a medical company sales representative who drives throughout Iowa, said he feels safe at 70 mph. But he would like to see the Iowa State Patrol crack down harder on people who drive too fast.
"I get passed by a lot of people doing 80 or 85 mph. I wouldn't doubt that is contributing to some of the problem. Maybe the highway patrol could do more with their radar guns. If they kept it down to 70, it would be pretty safe," Nikel said.
Capt. Patrick Hoye of the Iowa State Patrol said troopers have stepped up enforcement on rural interstate highways, writing more speeding tickets and flying aircraft in an effort to hold down speeds. But the interstate highway system remains Iowa's safest road system, with the vast majority of traffic deaths occurring on two-lane state and county highways, he said.
The 47 traffic deaths on Iowa's rural interstate system in 2005 were the most since 48 people were killed in 1973, when the daytime speed limit was 75 mph and the night speed limit was 65 mph. The number of rural interstate traffic deaths dipped to a low of 14 in 1986. Between January 1974 and May 1987, Iowa's maximum highway speed was 55 mph, which stemmed from a nationwide fuel conservation effort.
'04 total especially low
Gov. Tom Vilsack is concerned about a spike in traffic fatalities, but he isn't alarmed about the trend on rural interstate highways after closely examining last year's statistics, said Jennifer Mullin, a Vilsack aide. She noted that 2004 had been a remarkable year for traffic safety in Iowa, in which the total number of fatalities declined to a post-World War II low. So it's not surprising that traffic fatalities were higher last year, she said. The number of rural interstate fatalities is also relatively small and needs to be examined over a longer period, she added.
As of last week, Iowa had 100 traffic deaths in 2006 on all types of roads, down 19 from the same period for 2005.
"We will continue to track the numbers and pay close attention," Mullin said. "If there needs to be legislative action, or if the governor sees a need, he will certainly do everything in his power to make sure that folks who are traveling in Iowa are safe."
A Department of Transportation survey of speeds on Iowa's rural interstate highways between January and March 2006 showed that 70 percent of motorists drove faster than 70 mph and 30 percent exceeded 75 mph. Six percent exceeded 80 mph.
The average speed was 71.42 mph, only about 1 mph faster than before the speed limit was raised last year.
"We feel that people are aware that we are out there. If there is not strict compliance with the speed limit, there is close compliance," Hoye said.
The 70 mph speed limit law approved by state lawmakers included stiffer fines for violators. But legislators have repeatedly reduced the ranks of the Iowa State Patrol in recent years, slashing the number of troopers from about 450 in the late 1990s to fewer than 370 troopers today.
As a result, the patrol must balance its enforcement duties, focusing its resources on two-lane highways with the most traffic deaths, but also trying to maintain compliance with traffic laws on rural interstate highways, Hoye said.
State Sen. Steve Kettering, a Lake View Republican who supported the 70 mph speed limit, said he still believes raising the limit was the right thing to do.
"People are going to drive at a speed they are comfortable with. Not seeing the average speed go up very much is exactly what I had anticipated," Kettering said.