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Our Views: Boost speed for freeway driving

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August 23, 2013

Paul Tittl recently drove the speed limit from his Manitowoc home to Madison and was the slowest driver on the road.

“I didn't pass anyone,” the freshman Republican assemblyman said.

That's one reason why Tittl has introduced a bill to raise the speed limit on major rural Wisconsin highways from 65 to 70 mph.

State residents like to think of Wisconsin as progressive. We remain in the slow lane and even backward, however, on Interstate speeds. On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn approved raising the top speed in Illinois to 70. That leaves Wisconsin the lone state between Pennsylvania and Oregon stuck at 65 mph. Drivers in some states cruise even faster than 70.

Critics of Tittl's plan point to studies that suggest a higher speed limit will lead to more traffic deaths. Still, some crash analysts say letting speed limits edge up poses no higher risks. Supporters point to a study from Purdue University that suggested the likelihood of fatalities and serious injuries didn't rise when Indiana moved from 65 to 70 in 2005. Supporters also could cite research years ago that suggested most fatal crashes on Wisconsin's Interstate system involve not speeders but drivers falling asleep or going too fast for conditions.

Besides, as drivers know well, many or most motorists roll at 70 mph or higher now.

“I don't think it will be much of a change at all,” Tittl argues.

Still, the change would give more drivers the opportunity to reach their jobs or vacation destinations more quickly without the risk of tickets. It would make salespeople who spend many hours on the road more efficient. It would give companies chances to improve commerce by moving goods and services more swiftly.

Sure, higher speeds might erode roadbeds more quickly. Our Interstate highways, however, were built to handle speeds of 70.

The energy crisis in 1973 caused the federal government to slow drivers to 55 mph. Washington lifted that rule in 1995. Those still wanting to save gas by driving below a higher speed limit would be free to do so.

It's intuitive to think that raising the limit would stretch the range of speeds motorists use and boost risks of motorists bumping into each other. Yet vehicles keep getting safer, more people are wisely buckling up, and traffic deaths per mile driven have been falling. The state plans to further enhance safety with expansion plans in congested areas such as Interstate 90/39 between the state line and Madison.

It's good to hear Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, support Tittl's proposal. It's disappointing that Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald signaled disinterest  and that Gov. Scott Walker and Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb took no position.

We hope that, instead of leaving an archaic roadblock for motorists, our leaders in Madison help drivers step on the gas.



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