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States with Highest Speed Limits
By GARY HOFFMAN, AOL AUTOS
Top Maximum Speed Limits
1. 80 mph -- Texas (on about 500 miles of Interstate 10 and 20 in southwest corner of the state)
2. 75 mph -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas (in counties with less than 10 people per square mile), Utah, Wyoming
3. 70 mph -- Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington State, West Virginia
From a highway safety standpoint, the patchwork of speed limits at least seems to make sense. Speeds are slower in more populous Eastern states and faster in the wide-open West, although the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety argues that some of the new, higher speed limits out West and elsewhere are costing lives. It estimates that deaths on interstates and freeways have increased 15 percent due to the higher speed limits.
Political scientist Robert Yowell, a professor at Northeast Lakeview College in Texas, examined what happened after states began setting higher rural speed limits in 1995. With the federal 65 mph limit gone, it was possible to compare the accident rates before and after the new limits went into effect.
The results were clear: "By and large, across the 50 states, there was no discernible effect from the higher limits," Yowell said. "Two or three states actually had a decrease in fatalities."
Once speed limits are raised on interstates, drivers are more likely to get off the more dangerous two lanes and use the faster routes, Yowell said. Furthermore, the motorists traveling the fastest on the higher-speed interstates tend to be good at that kind of driving. The less competent drivers at high speeds tend to drive more slowly.
While Yowell admits most states are well-intentioned, he's "not willing to accept that speed limits are solely a function of safety," he said. "They are a function of revenue generation as well. There have been cases of judges saying communities have to raise their speed limits because they were obviously being used to raise revenues and that's not a proper use of the law."
In part, Yowell looks to differences in political cultures to explain the great continental divide in speed limits. "It may be that certain states have a different approach to questions involving personal liberty versus collective safety," he said.
His research doesn't surprise Jim Baxter, president of the Waunakee, Wis.-based National Motorists Association. His organization had lobbied heavily for an end to the federal limits.
Baxter's rule of thumb for computing the right speed limit is the traffic engineering standard known as the 85th percentile speed. That's the speed that 85 percent of motorists drive at or below. But it tends to be well above the speed limits that most jurisdictions set.
With the speed limit set at that level, traffic tends to move smoothly, reducing the risk of accidents, Baxter said. If you put the limit below that speed, some vehicles are traveling far more slowly than the fastest drivers, creating the most dangerous conditions of all.
Baxter argues that most drivers naturally tend to drive at speeds that suit the road conditions and their driving skills.
St. Thomas is a case in point, albeit an extreme one. With its congestion and rugged terrain, the island is bereft of performance cars; many of the vehicles are older pickups, aging Japanese compacts and SUVs. The treacherous conditions restrict speeds far more effectively than any local law. As Joe Aubain, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, puts it,"Even if you wanted to go a whole lot faster, you couldn't," he said.