Editor’s note: This commentary is in the May/June 2023 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine, as part of our “It’s Debatable” feature. In this regular column, we invite organizations and/or individuals to address a particular issue. Click here to subscribe to the magazine, available in both print and digital formats: www.adirondackexplorer.org/subscribe.
The question: Should I-87 go to 70 mph?
AAA: Studies show risks rise with speed
AAA has not taken an official position on the latest efforts in New York to raise the speed limit to 70 on the Adirondack Northway and elsewhere. However, AAA believes that speed limits should not be raised or lowered only to manipulate traffic volume on a particular roadway. States are urged to use engineering and traffic surveys when setting maximum speed limits. AAA has been an advocate for traffic safety for more than 100 years and realizes that drivers often travel more than the posted speed limit, especially since the pandemic.
While only 4% of drivers increased driving due to the pandemic, 51% of them admitted to speeding 10 miles or more over the speed limit on a residential street. AAA urges motorists to drive safely at the posted speed limit and to adjust speed accordingly based on weather conditions.
In 2021, AAA reported how small speed increases can have huge effects on crash outcomes after crash testing at 40, 50 and 56 mph. The slightly higher speeds were enough to increase the driver’s risk of severe injury or death.
Drivers often travel faster than posted speed limits, but when officials raise limits to match travel speeds, people still go faster. Today, 42 states allow 70 mph or higher speeds on some roadways, including eight states that have maximum speeds of 80 mph or more. A 2019 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that rising speed limits have cost nearly 37,000 lives over 25 years. AAA and IIHS urge policymakers to factor in this danger when considering speed limit changes.
The safety organizations conducted crashes, at Calspan Corp.’s testing facility in Western New York, and found that in a crash at 55.9 mph, the vehicle interior was significantly compromised, with the dummy’s sensors registering severe neck injuries, and a likelihood of fractures to the long bones in the lower leg. As the crash speed increased in the tests, researchers found more structural damage and greater forces on the dummy’s entire body.
Speeding isn’t always worth it: For instance, on a 5-mile trip, if you drive at 65 mph on a 45-mph road, you’d shave off only 1.9 minutes from your travel time. Drivers tend to overestimate the time saved by speeding. You’d have to travel 100 miles to save roughly 5 minutes, moving at 80 mph instead of 75 mph.
— Eric Stigberg, managing director of marketing, public and government affairs, AAA Northway
Raise Northway speed limit by 5 mph
In 1995, the U.S. Congress allowed states to decide their maximum speed limits and Gov. George Pataki signed legislation increasing the maximum speed limit from 55 to 65 mph in New York. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, most states now have speed limits above 65 mph, with New York State having one of lowest speed limits.
This year, I introduced a new bill that would authorize an increase of the maximum speed limit to 70 mph for travel on certain state roadways (Assembly bill 05044, same as Senate bill 02209 by Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats). The legislation would allow the commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Thruway Authority to increase the speed limit on state roadways that meet the criteria for the new maximum limit. (DOT tries to set limits at the pace of a “reasonable and prudent motorist,” considering speed may change based on how straight a highway is or how much visibility there is.)
According to The Institute of Transportation Engineers, posted speed limits for arterials, which are the backbone of many urban road networks and designed to transport people through large areas quickly, need to be set at or close to the 85th percentile speed. Under my bill, some state routes that could have a 70-mph speed limit upon approval by the Thruway Authority or DOT include the Southern Tier Expressway, Interstate 81, Interstate 88, Interstate 481, State Route 481 and Interstate 87—the Adirondack Northway.
Transportation engineers agree that speed limits can and should be revisited and restudied as safety data is compiled and traffic patterns or technology changes.
Over the years, technology has become far more advanced, resulting in vehicles being produced with more safety features and becoming easier to drive. People have also grown more comfortable driving at higher speed limits and New York’s roads are better equipped to handle it. This small change to our state’s speed limit would acknowledge those advancements and adjust to what most drivers comfortably drive at on major roadways across the country.
New York is adhering to a speed limit set two decades ago. Increasing the speed limit on some of our highways would align New York with the many other states that already have speed limits of 70 mph or higher, including neighboring Pennsylvania.
— Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam
Almanack file photo courtesy of NYS DOT