Friday, May 06, 2005

Make Speed Limits Flexible

It’s official. With the governor’s signature solidly on the line, Hoosier motorists can begin driving at a more reasonable 70 miles per hour on rural Interstate highways and other limited access highways this summer. The speed limits on other divided highways could be increased to 60 mph.

“The will of the legislature was clear,” Gov. Mitch Daniels said. Both the House and the Senate approved the increase in speed limits by comfortable margins.

While the speed limits on Interstates could go up on or near July 1, the speed limits on other highways will remain at 55 mph until state engineers determine which ones can handle the higher speeds. That could take several weeks or months.

In Johnson County, Interstate 65 will have its speed limit increased to 70 mph fairly quickly. And U.S. 31 could eventually see a higher speed limit along the rural stretch between Franklin and Edinburgh. Currently, the speed limit on rural state highways, divided or not, is 55 mph.

Of course, if you’ve ever driven on that stretch of highway, you know that if anyone were to actually travel at 55 mph, they would be considered a nuisance. Drivers typically cruise along at a good 10 mph faster than that. And that means that even if the speed is increased to 60 mph, it still won’t match what motorists are actually doing and what the road is capable of handling.

In 1971 I used to travel U.S. 31 almost daily as I commuted to Franklin College from my home in Edinburgh. The speed limit then was a reasonable 65 mph. When the federal government mandated a speed limit reduction to 55 mph in 1973, it felt as though I was creeping along. It still does when I go the speed limit.

I’ve always thought posted speed limits were rather arbitrary anyway. All states have legal speed limits, and most states have limits that are higher than even Indiana’s new one, at least on non-Interstate highways.

I guess they are necessary, but a new system might work even better. For example, most state police officers and sheriff’s deputies will allow up to 10, even 15 mph over the posted speed limit before issuing a citation. Officially, it is up to the individual officer’s discretion.

But that makes a speed “limit” a misnomer. If it’s a limit, by definition, it is not to be exceeded.

Instead of posting speed limit signs, why not post suggested speed signs with the current speed limits as the accepted suggestions. Motorists would be free to go faster if conditions permit.

Under this system, drivers could travel at 75 or 80 mph during times of good weather and light traffic. During high traffic times, or when the weather is bad, police officers could ticket drivers for reckless driving if they were going faster than the conditions warranted.

Most drivers have enough common sense to know how fast is safe. If you’re driving 70 miles per hour through a residential district of a divided highway during the time of day when kids are getting off school in the pouring rain, then you deserve a speeding ticket, even if the officially posted speed limit were 85.

Germany takes the no speed limit idea to the limit. On rural stretches of its world-famous Autobahn, motorists can go as fast as they wish. Drivers come to Germany from all over just for the privilege of driving fast. Of course, the Autobahn has a high fatality rate, too.

So I’m not advocating no speed limits at all, just more reasonable ones that change according to the conditions of the road. The flexible limits would more readily reflect what is actually happening and would remove the anxiety of drivers who fear they are doing something wrong when they find themselves going 75 mph on the open road.

But, for now at least, the new higher speed limits will do. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

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