Safety at 70 mph rests in drivers’ hands

You can go 70 mph again on Ohio’s rural stretches of Interstate highway, something you haven’t been able to do since OPEC shut off the oil tap in 1973 and the 55 mph national speed limit went into effect in 1974 in the name of saving fuel.

The speed limit hung on in the name of safety throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, when it became apparent that people were routinely ignoring it and wanted to go faster.

Cars have improved dramatically since the last time 70 was the norm in Ohio. Better brakes, better handling, better headlights, the advent of airbags first for front passengers and now throughout vehicles all are part of the lowliest economy car or the most luxurious gigantic sport utility vehicle compared with a 1974 counterpart.

Today’s vehicles feel as if they’re barely moving at 55 and many passenger cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles simply feel more suited for traveling at higher speeds.

The highways are engineered to handle traffic going 70 mph as part of the basic design of Interstates, dating back to the beginnings of the system under President Dwight Eisenhower.

Accidents do not necessarily become more severe with the increase, according to one study of Indiana speed limits done for the Federal Highway Administration after Ohio’s western neighbor increased its Interstate speed limits from 65 mph to 70 mph in 2005. Iowa found cross-median crashes increased but were statistically a small portion of total accidents.

The common thought that people will simply go 90 with a 70 mph speed limit is not true. A self-limiting factor kicks in, according to findings in Iowa, Indiana and California. Drivers in Indiana were reported under free-flowing traffic conditions, to exceed the 55 mph speed limit by 11 mph; the 65 mph by 9 mph and the 70 mph limit by 8 mph.

The highways are ready. The cars and trucks can do the job. The question is, will we live up to the statistical findings by being more alert, by putting down the cup of coffee, programming the navigation system before departing and staying off the cell phone while hurtling down the Interstate? Do we maintain our cars in adequate mechanical condition and check the inflation pressures on our tires, which run hotter at higher speeds? Do we maintain adequate following distances between our vehicle and the one ahead, with the space needed to slow or stop increasing with higher speeds?

We can be quicker and safer if we all concentrate on actual driving while driving.