TALLAHASSEE — In what is becoming a battle of statistics, safe driving advocates are pushing back against a new proposal to raise Florida’s speed limits.
Florida last increased the state speed limit to 70 mph in 1996.
The increase on a given stretch of highway would happen only if traffic engineers “determine that the roadway was safe enough for such a speed,” according to a statement.
Not so fast, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by the insurance industry.
“There’s no question that raising speed limits is politically popular, but there is always a safety trade off,” he said. “Higher speeds make a crash more likely because it takes longer to stop or slow down. And the crashes that happen are more likely to be deadly.”
Brandes, however, pointed to data from the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that shows Florida’s driving fatalities have gone down from 2,753 in 1996, when the speed limit was last raised, to 2,398 in 2011. That’s even as population, and thus the number of drivers, has gone up.
The state’s fatality rate, based on a formula of deaths per miles traveled, decreased over the same time from 2.12 to 1.25, statistics show.
The proposed law will “allow traffic engineers to make the decision to raise the speed limit on a roadway if they believe it is safe and advisable to do so,” Brandes added.
But another concern, raised by AAA spokeswoman Karen Morgan, is that no matter the speed limit, many highway drivers regularly drive a little faster than the posted number.
She also called attention to other data that seemingly contradicts Brandes’ and Clemens’ position.
“It’s kind of perplexing,” Morgan said about their proposal. “That’s just not what the research shows.”
She referred to the insurance institute’s numbers, showing speeding remains a safety problem in the 16 states with a 75 mph or greater speed limit.
In 2011, the institute’s data shows, almost a third of all motor vehicle fatalities resulted from speed-related crashes, with wrecks ending in 9,944 deaths.
“But you don’t need a study – it’s just physics,” Rader said. “Higher speeds mean it’s less likely that a driver facing an emergency will be able to brake and reduce the speed enough to make a crash survivable.”
Clemens said the idea behind the bill is to defer to those who know best.
“Allowing professionals to determine safe speeds based on the engineering standards of individual highways is simply common sense,” Clemens said. “A 5 mile per hour increase is unlikely to have an impact on road safety, but we’ll let the experts do their job.”
State law allows for 70 mph on interstates, 65 mph for highways with a divided median and 60 mph on other roadways. Under the Brandes-Clemens bill, all of these limits could be raised by 5 mph.
Texas now has the nation’s top speed limit at 85 mph, with Utah second at 80 mph, both on certain portions of highway in those respective states, according to the insurance institute.
Traffic fatalities in Texas have decreased in the 10 years from 2001-11, from 3,736 to 3,016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In less-populated Utah, over the same period, deaths went down from 291 to 240.
Morgan said the idea deserves more study focusing on specific roadways’ design, the number of entry and exit points, vehicle capacity and other factors.