The Fast Track
By George Bullard
If you think driving slowly is the safe way to travel, think again. Dawdling can be a hazard. And stepping on the gas might be the prudent thing to do, or so say studies supporting efforts to raise speed limits.
The key is to find the Goldilocks speed — not too fast, not to slow, but just right, a pace to keep you in the flow of traffic.
“At 65 mph, on the vast majority of our freeways, you are one of the slowest vehicles on the road,” says Lt. Gary Megge, a traffic crash reconstruction expert for the Michigan State Police. “Everybody is going to pass you if you go 60 or 65. Those slower vehicles are outside the pace, the speed of the normal drive. That slowest driver causes everyone on the road to react to him. You either have to slow down, hit the brakes, or change lanes to pass him. The slow driver forces everyone else on the road to do something different.”
Chalk up the lieutenant as Michigan’s expert in reasonable speed limits — on freeways, highways, and local roads alike. He’s done hundreds of speed studies, and so far, has had a hand in raising some 200 speed limits across the state.
In deciding limits, traffic engineers calculate the “85th percentile speed,” the number signals that 85 percent of the drivers along a stretch of pavement are traveling at that speed or slower.
Motorists themselves set the 85th percentile speed — often by blissfully ignoring those unnecessarily low speed limits. For example, the speed limit on I-69 near Flint used to be a pokey 55 mph, but drivers still zoomed along at 74 mph (the 85th percentile speed). Authorities raised the speed limit to 70 and the percentile speed dropped by 1 mph to 73, or about the same as before.
Of the I-69 change, Megge says, “Fewer faster drivers, fewer slower drivers; it’s one example of how a correction made a road much more user-friendly. It increased the capacity; it reduced the spread [between high and low speeds]. It was a beautiful thing.”
Make no mistake; the lieutenant distinguishes between appropriate speed and excessive speed, such as going 100 mph on a freeway or 50 mph in a subdivision. “When we talk about speed kills, it’s just not true,” he says. “Excessive speed kills, absolutely.
“But the vast majority of our roads are under-posted, meaning the speed limit is too slow and nearly everyone violates it.”
Insurance companies aren’t crazy about higher speed limits. “The problem is that drivers tend to travel at a speed at which they don’t think they’ll get a ticket,” says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. “In most places, that’s five or 10 miles over the posted speed...........
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