"People want to go fast, " says Adrian Lund, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Cars are built to go fast and states increasingly want to raise their speed limits. Even if it means saving just two or three minutes during a trip, people want to go faster."
Comfortable Faster Speeds
Speed limits have been raised in part because state lawmakers feel drivers are more comfortable going well above 65 MPH. For that you can thank automakers who are building cars and trucks with greater capability and better performance at higher speeds. Michael Robinet, a consultant with IHS Global Insight says this is the influence of meeting European standards. "Automakers are moving toward global standards so their cars are engineered to perform at higher speeds you see in Europe on the Autobahn, " says Robinet.
Lund agrees. "The cars now make you feel more comfortable when you are going 85, 95 or even 100 miles per hour, " says Lund. "Ten years ago, when a car got up around 80 or 85 miles per hour, it did not handle as well and you didn't feel as comfortable driving it."
Speed Kills, But Traffic Deaths Near Record Lows
It's an established fact in the auto business: faster speeds mean more deadly accidents. Drivers have less time to react, the force at impact is often greater, there's simply less margin for error.
And yet, traffic fatalities in the U.S. have been edging lower in recent years. According to preliminary data, an estimated 32, 310 people died in vehicle accidents last year. That's the lowest level since 1949.
Interestingly, as the economy has improved, people are driving more and the fatality rate appears to be higher this year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association estimates 16, 290 people died in accidents in the U.S. during the first half of this year. But, even with a 9 percent increase year over year, the fatality rate in the first half of 2012 is down 27% compared to the same time period in 2006.
How is it the fatality rate is staying relatively low if speed limits are moving higher?
Lund says a big factor are the safety improvements built into cars and trucks. Cars now are built safer. Whether it's electronic stability control to prevent roll-over crashes or adaptive cruise control to help drivers better react at higher speeds, these advancements are preventing accidents and saving lives.