California's Record May Slow Rush to Raise Speed Limits

Statistics fresh off the highways of America's largest state could put the brakes on the rush to raise speed limits elsewhere.

Data released this month from California, where 1 of every 10 US drivers resides, show accidents have increased nearly 9 percent (jumping to 38,727) and highway fatalities have climbed 17 percent (to 374) since the state increased speed limits to 65 and 70 miles per hour (m.p.h.). The Golden State was among the first of 21 states to raise highway speed limits last December after the federal government repealed the 55 m.p.h. national limit that was imposed at the height of the Arab oil embargo in 1974.

Twelve more states are currently considering legislation to follow suit. Of 17 others, only New Hampshire has expressly stated it will not consider similar legislation, and Virginia took up the issue but voted down an increase. "Other states are keeping their eyes on the early examples to see what lessons they bode," says Tim Hurd, spokesman for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "These are certainly disturbing statistics to go on."

Most observers, including Mr. Hurd and the California Highway Patrol (CHP), which released the data, hasten to add that more information gathered over a longer period of time is needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn. The basis for the figures is a three-month study from Dec. 15, 1995, to March 15, 1996. Factors besides the speed-limit hike - such as the total number of cars on the road, total miles traveled, weather, and enforcement patterns - could come into play.

"All we are saying right now is the new statistics are drawing our serious attention," says CHP officer Frank Sandoval.

Whatever the cause, insurance and safety-advocacy groups are already highlighting the data in stepped-up efforts to convince other states that raising speed limits is not good policy.

"This underscores the consequences of repealing the national speed limit and indicates exactly why other states should move cautiously in following California," says David Snyder, assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association, which represents more than 250 property and casualty insurance companies. Noting that similar rises were evident after many Western states raised speed limits on some rural roads in 1987, he says: "Regardless of cause, the California data are of great concern in the national context where, in recent years, motor-vehicle crash fatalities have increased."

Chuck Hurley of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research agency funded by the auto-insurance industry, says the new figures are consistent with studies in the US and abroad.

"If this same trend holds up for the course of nine more months, the repeal [of speed limits] would prove to be the equivalent of repealing safety-belt laws and minimum-age-drinking laws," Mr. Hurley says. "A lot of the hard-fought gains in seat-belt and air-bag laws and child safety are now being undercut by higher speed limits."

Although the move to a national speed limit of 55 m.p.h. was approved in 1974 primarily to reduce gasoline consumption, it had immediate effects on fatality and accident statistics nationwide. According to Judy Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based lobbying group, highway deaths dropped by 9,000 the first year the limit was in effect.

Such improvement has remained constant for more than two decades, until the 1987 changes adopted by many states sent the statistics rising again.

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