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Op-ed: Higher Utah speed limits come at deadly price

By Rolayne Fairclough

First Published Feb 08 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 08 2014 01:01 am

Speed has been the leading cause of death on Utah roads every year since 2006. This startling fact is found in Utah Crash Summary 2012 from the Utah Highway Safety Office, the state agency tasked with compiling and publishing Utah crash statistics.

Higher speed impedes driving safety because it increases the difficulty of navigating curves or roadway obstacles, it increases the distance required to stop, and it increases the distance traveled when reacting to road hazards.

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The 10-year trend in Utah shows that 17.6 percent of all crashes and 42.7 percent of fatal crashes are speed related. When compared with all crashes, speed-related crashes were more likely to occur on roads with higher speed limits and nearly one-half (47.9 percent) of total speed-related crashes occurred where the speed limit was 60 miles per hour (mph) or higher.

According to the National Safety Council, the chances of dying in a crash doubles for every 10 mph traveled over 50 mph because of the increase in the kinetic energy as the vehicle gains speed. The increased kinetic forces from speed make it impossible to survive some high-speed crashes.

Traffic Safety Facts 2011, by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, notes that buckling seat belts reduces the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and light–truck occupants by 60 percent. The Utah Highway Safety Office estimated that 505 of the 1,009 unrestrained occupants that died in Utah crashes in the last 10 years would have survived if they had been restrained.

Not only do higher speeds lead to increased danger on the road, speed has an impact on gasoline consumption. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that every 5 mph driven over 60 mph is comparable to paying an additional 24 cents per gallon.

In July 2011, Consumer Reports reported on practical road tests to determine the effect of speed on a car’s gas consumption. When the test changed the cruising speed from 55 mph to 65, the overall fuel mileage dropped five miles per gallon. At 75 mph, mileage dropped an additional five miles per gallon. The result is that the higher the speed the more fuel used and the greater the emissions deposited.

High speeds also impact the vehicle. Increases in speed raise tire temperatures, softening the tire and causing faster wear. Higher horsepower and speed also mean shorter life for the driveline gears, bearings, the engine and transmission. Higher speeds may also require that highways be designed and constructed to meet the additional stresses.

What advantage do higher speeds bring to drivers? Often the answer is a quicker trip with less chance of succumbing to driver fatigue. Let’s imagine the entire road from Salt Lake City to Wendover (120 miles) were driven at 80 rather than 75 mph. The total time saved on that imaginary trip would be only six minutes.

Given the negative impacts, such a small savings in time hardly warrants exposing oneself and others to the increased danger of high speeds.

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Rolayne Fairclough is chair of the Coalition for Utah Traffic Safety and past president of the National Association of Women Highway Safety Leaders. She represents AAA Utah.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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