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The Need for Speed

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A busy morning along Highway 52 in Rochester. A busy morning along Highway 52 in Rochester.

In 1975, the national speed limit of 55 miles per hour was signed into law, during the Nixon administration, giving the federal government the sole right to determine the speed limit for all states. This came about as a result of the oil crisis at the time and it was seen as an opportunity to curb oil usage and to supposedly lower accidents and fatalities on our roads. Then in 1995, the National Speed Limit law was repealed during the Clinton administration, citing lack of effectiveness and implementation. At the time, some said: "Good." Some said: "Not so good." So, that got us wondering. 20 years after the repeal of the National Speed Limit Law, how have the modern speed limits effected drivers like you and me? And is there a need for speed?

First, we spoke with Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Dougherty to understand how our speed limits are determined.

“So the speed limits are set by the legislature,”Dougherty explained. “If you have an interstate highway, for example I-90 close to here, or I-35 to the west of us, that can be 70 miles per hour. When you enter an urban area, it goes down to 65 or it can go lower, depending on the density, say if you're in the Twin Cities. Then you have Highway 52, where we're standing. When you come through the urban area,  it's 60 miles an hour; but once you move out of that, into the more rural areas, it can go up to 65,” said Dougherty.

One controversy that seems to have surrounded the repeal was that higher speeds would be more hazardous to drivers. Did that come true?

“Our fatality rate has actually decreased from that period,” stated Dougherty. “Looking back at that period, it was 1.35 deaths per million miles driven. Now, we are at .63 deaths per million miles driven. At that same time, we are driving more miles now. There are more vehicles on the road that are capable of higher speeds. I think vehicles have become safer, the design of highways is safer. We're more conscious of wearing our seat belts. Things haven't stayed constant,” Dougherty said. “Still, people are dying on the highways and often a contributing factor is speed.

“It's our number one contributing factor in all fatal crashes in the state,” said Sergeant Troy Christianson, a 15 year member of the Minnesota State Patrol. Sgt. Christianson was at one time an accident reconstruction specialist and would often see the effects of speeding, literally staring him in the face. “You just feel bad for the families because it's just a life changing event (when someone dies in an accident). So, speed is a major factor in those and you feel bad for the families, friends and community that lost a loved one,” Christianson said.

Dougherty says that he has heard the arguments by many that certain places in Minnesota should see a speed limit increase, particularly wide open roads, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. However, as advanced as technology has become, there is one piece the seems to suggest the lack of a speed increase of any kind. Both Christianson and Dougherty agree that texting and driving, as well as  cell phone use in general is a major issue they both see causing accidents: both fatal and non-fatal.

Nevertheless, there are ways, Dougherty says,  for drivers to make a suggested speed limit increase. “Seek out your council member or your county board member, or even somebody at the state legislative level, your representative or your senator and then it works from there,” Dougherty said.”A request is made to MNDOT via that public entity and then we will do a study or make a determination, looking at a variety of factors; from geography to traffic counts, crash data, what the speed is now,"... which according to Sergeant Christianson is just fine. "I don't think we should increase the speed limits, just because at higher speeds, you're going to have higher impact, more damage when you do crash.”

For more information on MNDOT, please visit: http://www.dot.state.mn.us/speed/

For more information on the Minnesota State Patrol, please visit: https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/ots/distracted-driving/Pages/default.aspx

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