EDITORIAL: Safe at any speed in Virginia

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The most concrete achievement in the early days of the Republican congressional takeover of 1995 was, arguably, the elimination of the hated 55 mph national speed limit. Millions across the country experienced firsthand the benefit of moving beyond the “Washington knows best” mentality that had gripped transportation policy since the 1970s.

Last week, Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia’s newly inaugurated Republican governor, lifted a page from the same playbook. In his State of the Commonwealth speech on Jan. 18, he promised to “raise the speed limit in rural parts of the state to 70 miles per hour on major interstates.”

That would be a welcome change for Virginians who want to get to their destinations safely and efficiently without having to look over their shoulders for lurking state troopers. Anytime this topic is raised, however, you can count on naysayers to drag out the tired old “speed kills” song, which should have been laid to rest in the disco era in which it was born.

During congressional debate on the elimination of the national speed limit, many self-styled safety groups tossed around the scary prediction that 6,400 additional people would die every year if the so-called double nickel (55 mph limit) were ever repealed. As we now know, the repeal happened, but the extra deaths did not.

Today, 33 states have limits of at least 70 mph. A dozen allow 75, while Texas and Utah both authorize 80. Far from becoming less safe, U.S. roads experienced a decline in the fatality rate year on year as these limits began to rise. In the final days of 55 mph, the fatality rate stood at 1.73 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. According to the latest U.S. Department of Transportation data, that rate dipped by a third last year to an all-time low of 1.16.

That information should be enough to convince the Virginia General Assembly as it considers the legislation needed to implement Mr. McDonnell’s proposal, but we also know exactly what happens when limits are increased in Virginia. On Oct. 1, 2007, the speed limit on a 37-mile stretch of Interstate 85 was increased to 70 mph. The Washington Times requested accident data to evaluate the impact. Although Virginia Department of Transportation officials caution that it is too early to draw a scientifically reliable conclusion, the preliminary data are encouraging. There were no more deaths on the higher-speed section of highway, and the percentage of severe crashes declined slightly.

The reason for this is simple. The existing limits on both urban and rural roads do not reflect the actual speed of traffic. Drivers tend to stick to the speed at which they are most comfortable traveling, regardless of the number painted on speed-limit signs. How the change does make a difference is that it prevents the majority of motorists from being preyed upon as a revenue source through speeding tickets.

Navigating the 70 mph bill through the General Assembly will be a good test of the new governor’s leadership ability. We applaud Mr. McDonnell for making this sensible change a priority for his administration.

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