Northern California Injury Lawyer Asks: Does Increasing the Speed Limit Lead to an Increase in Accidents?

Our decades of work as a San Francisco car accident law firm have shown us the tragic consequences of dangerous driving behaviors. We have learned that accidents have a multitude of causes, but there are some that appear time and time again. As we’ve noted in prior blog posts, speeding is one of the most common culprits in car accidents. Excess speed causes crashes and also exacerbates collisions, making what could have been a fender-bender into a true tragedy. Given the clear link between speed and accidents, we wanted to look at a related question: What impact does increasing the speed limit have on the number of accidents on a given roadway?

Oakley Leaders Approve Increased Speed Limits on Several Roads
This issue is particularly relevant to residents (and those who drive through) Oakley, a city of 35,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the Oakland Tribune, the Oakley City Council approved changes recommended by the city engineer to speed zones on part of Main Street and other roadways. The engineer’s suggestion came after studying traffic speeds and the physical characteristics of the roads, information that California law dictates must be updated every seven years for roads with speed limits above 25mph if the community wants to enforce speed limits using radar. Most speed limits will stay the same, but limits on parts of Main Street will go up to 30, 35 and 40mph. Additionally, legal speeds on Brown, Brownstone, West Cypress, and O’Hara will increase by 5 to 10mph.

Does Increasing the Speed Limit Lead to More Accidents and/or Fatalities? Possibly, Yes.
speed.jpgNumerous studies have looked at the relationship between speed limits and fatal accidents (note: reports focus on fatal crashes instead of injury crashes because only the former are tracked by the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System/”FARS”). Last year, the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research published a report reviewing several such studies to attempt to find a definitive answer. By way of background, federal law permitted states to go from a top speed of 55mph to 65mph in 1987. In 1995, the federal government repealed the national speed limit, leading most states to raise the speed limit on at least some roads.

Connecticut’s report found studies came to varied conclusions on the impact of the higher speed limits instituted after the federal law shifts. The authors gave heavy weight to a 2006 National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) report which attempted to clear up prior research discrepancies. The NCHRP’s own study concluded that, on an average road, a speed limit change from 55mph to 65mph led to 3% more accidents, a 24% rise in the chance of fatal injury, and an overall 28% increase in predicted fatalities. The study found a similar, but much smaller, impact from an increase from a limit 65mph to 75mph (0.64% total crash rate increase, 12% increase in the probability of death, and a 13% overall increase in fatalities). While the study didn’t scientifically pinpoint a reason for the reduced impact of the higher speed shift, the authors proposed that people might drive more cautiously at high speeds and that roads deemed appropriate for a 75mph speed limit may be safer overall.

A second report that received special NCHRP attention came from the American Journal of Public Health. That report attributed a 3.2% rise in fatalities to speed limit increases across the country, tying 36,583 injuries and 12,545 deaths to increased speed limits over a 10 year span.

Focusing on Safety
We urge any community considering a speed limit increase to think carefully about the choice (and to take note of the fact that a lot of drivers add at least 5 miles to the posted limit). The decision should be driven by safety concerns, not popularity or a re-election gimmick.

We also urge drivers to remember that responsible driving means obeying the speed limit and adjusting travelling speed to the existing conditions. A heavy storm, intense fog, road construction, or an unusually high number of pedestrians and/or children in the area may mean even the posted speed limit is too fast for safe travel.

If another driver’s decision to drive too fast given the totality of the circumstances caused an accident that left you injured or led to the death of a loved one, we may be able to help. The first step to recovering monetary compensation is giving us a call and scheduling a free consultation with Attorney Greg Brod. We serve all of Northern California with personal injury law offices in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Rosa.

See Related Blog Posts:
Teens Speeding: Reducing this Safety Threat
Speeding: An All-Too-Common Threat to Roadway Safety

Photo by Nathan E. Photography