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Faster speed limits = more traffic crash deaths

February 23, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

Why are lawmakers like Rep. Jacobsen and Sen. Jones ignoring MDOT traffic studies showing that higher speed limits will increase traffic deaths and crashes?

Rep. Brad Jacobsen (R-Oxford)
Rep. Brad Jacobsen (R-Oxford) wants higher speed limits. But at what cost to his constituents?


The bills to increase Michigan’s speed limits, which include Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford)’s House Bill 4423, stalled out in the Michigan House of Representatives last Wednesday. That’s a good thing. It now gives lawmakers – in both the House and Senate – time to re-think how allowing cars and trucks to drive faster will kill more of their constituents.

Two recent studies sponsored by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) show that increasing Michigan speed limits will cause more Michigan drivers to die.

Specifically, the MDOT-sponsored studies conclude that speed limit increase proposals such as those contained in Rep. Jacobsen’s HB 4423 and House Bill 4425 (sponsored by Rep. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes) will have the following deadly consequences:

  • Increasing the speed limit on rural freeways from 70 mph to 80 mph and increasing the speed limit for trucks from 60 mph to 70 mph (as Rep. Jacobsen’s House Bill 4423 proposes to do) would result in a 29% increase in “fatal crashes.”
    (“Evaluating the Impacts of Speed Limit Policy Alternatives,” MDOT Research Administration Project Number: OR 13-009, July 21, 2014, Pages 108-109)
  • Increasing the speed limits on non-freeways from 55 mph to 65 mph  (as Rep. Jacobsen’s House Bill 4423 and Rep. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes)’s House Bill 4425 propose to do) would “result in fatal … crash rates increasing by 28.1 percent …” (“Evaluating Outcomes of Raising Speed Limits on High Speed Non-Freeways,” MDOT Research Administration Project Number: RC-1609B, April 2, 2015, Pages 86-87)

Curious we haven’t heard from Rep. Jacobsen, lead sponsor of the pending speed limit increase legislation, House Bill 4423, and Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) who’s been an outspoken proponent of HB 4423 and faster speed limits, in general.

Both lawmakers should be familiar with the 2014 and 2015 studies.

That’s because the MDOT-sponsored studies specifically state they were prompted by the speed limit increase bills that were introduced in 2014 – bills that, coincidentally, proposed the exact same speed limit increases (using identical, verbatim wording on identical page and line numbers) that House Bills 4423 and 4425 do.

For instance:

  • House Bill 5964 was introduced by Rep. Jacobsen on November 13, 2014. And, just like his pending currently-pending HB 4423, Rep. Jacobsen’s HB 5964 proposed increasing the speed limit from 70 mph to 80 mph on rural freeways, increasing the speed limit for trucks from 60 mph to 70 mph and increasing the speed limit on non-freeways from 55 mph to 65 mph.
  • Senate Bill 898 was introduced by Sen. Jones on March 27, 2014, as part of the Senate’s speed-limit-increase package. Sen. Jones’s SB 898 proposed eliminating the 55 mph “general speed limit” on non-freeways, thereby making room for Sen. Thomas Casperson (R-Escanaba)’s Senate Bill 896 (also introduced on March 27, 2014), which, like the currently-pending HB 4423, proposed increasing the speed limit on non-freeways to 65 mph – in addition to jacking up the speed limit on rural freeways from 70 mph to 80 mph and increasing the speed limit for trucks from 60 mph to 70 mph.

Let’s put the brakes on increasing speed limits in Michigan until drivers improve

I have a dog in this fight.

I’m an attorney who has spent the last 20 years helping people who have been seriously injured in Michigan automobile accidents. I know all about the damage and destruction caused by driving at excessive speeds. The reason I’ve been opposed to this legislation is that we’re talking about increasing speed limits at the same time we’re seeing literally an epidemic of texting and driving car accidents and other forms of distracted driving – often tied to technology – wreaking havoc. In my own cases, the defendants are often talking on cell phones, texting or, yes, surfing the web instead of watching the road in front of them. Increasing speed limits now takes away that vital safety cushion between perception and reaction for drivers who are often already distracted by phones.

One day, human beings will be replaced by Google cars and the number of motor vehicle accidents will hopefully plummet.  Compare that to present day, where 30,000 Americans are killed every year in car accidents – most of them preventable and most caused by human error. People won’t need a lawyer for car accidents that no longer happen, and I will likely be out of a job. When we replace human drivers, let’s raise speed limits as high as we safely can. But until then, or until we disable texting and surfing the web for people who are driving cars (the technology already exists, but it has caused bitter opposition by the cell phone providers and some car manufacturers), keep speed limits where they are.

I’ve followed the speed limit increase issue closely and I’ve been outspoken in my opposition to increasing Michigan’s speed limit to 80 mph for cars and 70 mph for trucks. To learn more, please check out my blog post, “Why am I against raising speed limits in Michigan?”

Indeed, the 2014 Michigan Traffic Crash Facts reports that “Excessive speed was indicated as the hazardous action by 21.1 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes.”

No wonder the electronic billboards in Novi and Farmington Hills as drivers travel northbound on I-275, approaching I-696, read: “Speeding shatters many lives.”

What do the lawmakers have to say about these studies?

The MDOT-sponsored studies about the deadly consequences of increasing Michigan’s speed limits are important. So important that it’s troubling that neither Rep. Jacobsen nor Sen. Jones – nor any of the other Michigan lawmakers pushing for faster speed limits – have chosen to share the studies with the public. These lawmakers have chosen instead to ignore their findings.

It’s not for lack of opportunity.

Sen. Jones, for example, appeared with me to debate the issue on  on Fox 2 Detroit’s “Let It Rip” in October 2015.  Sen. Jones completely ducked the issue, and spent most of his time talking about 35 mph speed traps as some sort of roundabout way to justify his support for HB 4423’s proposals for increasing Michigan’s speed limits.  See  “Why is Sen. Rick Jones talking about 35 mph speed traps when he’s pushing to increase speed limit to 80?,” which includes a video of the “Let It Rip” broadcast.

When I mentioned a study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, which found that fatalities and serious injuries increased 19.2% and 39.8%, respectively, when Michigan raised its speed limit on rural limited access highways from 55 miles per hour to 65 miles per hour in December 1987, that should have been Sen. Jones’s cue to mention the far more recent MDOT-sponsored studies from 2014 and 2015.

It would have been the responsible thing to do.

But he didn’t mention a word.

Instead, Sen. Jones insisted HB 4423’s “proposal” for faster speed limits “scientifically proves that we can have safer roadways …”

Unfortunately, bad ideas tend to attract company. Rep. Jacobsen has chosen to follow Sen. Jones’s lead.

In a February 2, 2016, press release on the Michigan House Republicans website, Rep. Jacobsen made no mention of the MDOT-sponsored studies’ conclusions about the deadly consequences of increasing Michigan’s speed limits – as he has proposed to do in HB 4423. Instead, Rep. Jacobsen praised his speed-limit-increase proposal, HB 4423, as:

“[A] fantastic combination of safety and common sense upgrades to our outdated speed limit laws …,” which “will make certain safety is our top priority.”

Similarly, in his February 8, 2016, “Safety first, speed limits second,” guest column on the Michigan House Republicans website, Rep. Jacobsen was silent about the studies’ deadly warnings. Instead, he stuck to his script that increasing speed limits somehow increases driving “safety”:

“[M]y intention has always been securing the safety of our Michigan motorists … I have been working actively on these reforms for more than two years and I’m very pleased with the great progress we’ve made. I am looking forward to the increased safety we will soon provide to Michigan motorists.”

So, why aren’t these lawmakers talking about the MDOT-sponsored studies that address the consequences of proposals identical to the ones they’re advocating?”

And most of all, we should have an answer for this question: Why are Rep. Jacobsen and Sen. Jones insisting that it’s safe to increase Michigan’s speed limits when two recent and relevant MDOT-sponsored studies unequivocally show just the opposite?

At a minimum, if lawmakers such as Rep. Jacobsen and Sen. Jones – and other lawmakers in both Houses – truly believe driving faster is so important, then the public deserves to hear from those lawmakers exactly why a nearly 30% increase in traffic deaths is an acceptable price to pay for quicker commutes.

Well, Rep. Jacobsen … Sen. Jones … ?

We’re waiting.

In the days to come, I will discuss the consequences of increasing rural freeway speed limits to 80 mph, increasing speed limits for trucks to 70 mph and increasing the non-freeway speed limit to 65 mph.

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