Reader Question: Autobahn Speeds?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Dana asks: I definitely remember reading that our  highways were designed to handle traffic flow speeds of 80 mph in good weather. Am I mistaken or correct?

My reply: As Ed used to say… you are correct, sir! The Interstate Highway System was designed – in the 1950s – for average speeds of 75-80 MPH. In other words, the designers – who were experts in their field and not lunatic speed freaks – considered that the average person in an average 1950s-era car could safely drive at those speeds. Consider the implications.

If it was safe for an average person to drive a ’50s-era car at 75-80 on the highways, then how can it not be at least as safe for a 2019 (or 1990) car to be driven at least as fast? Yet it is illegal in almost every state to drive faster than 70-75.

If you take into account a modern car’s orders-of-magnitude superior capabilities, there’s no legitimate reason for speed limits to be less than 80 or even 90. I’m in favor of no speed limits whatsoever because I oppose punishing people for not causing harm and merely driving faster than some number arbitrarily posted on a sign doesn’t – as such – harm anyone.

Regardless, it’s preposterous – and vicious – to punish people for doing today what was considered perfectly safe (and was even legal to do) 60-something years ago.

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Following WW2, many states did not have an official highway speed limit, although there were not that many highways. Around 1964, Solomon and Cirillo did a comprehensive, nationwide study of traffic speeds traveled and found that the safest speed was at the 85th percentile. The 85th percentile corresponded with the lowest accident involvement. State legislatures that enacted statutory limits took that into account when setting their state maximums. Many states posted 70 mph on interstates. About 12 or so posted 75 and 2 had none at all. In 1974, it was reduced to 55 mph nationwide. It wasn’t until 1987 that congress relaxed it to 65 mph due to public pressure from groups like the National Motorists Association and individual constituents. The NMA was able to get the law completely repealed in 1995.

    Many states immediately rolled their speed limits to 1973 levels. Others waited on legilsation. Instead of listening to highway engineers, they randomly posted their own limits. Some were higher than 1973 limits, some were lower. On secondary roads, some speed limits remain lower than they were 50 years ago. Some are higher.

    Montana was a special case as noted above. After the 65/70/and 75 mph speed limits were imposed in 1999, the number of accidents and fatalities doubled. It is called the Montana Paradox. There’s a 20 year old article on that phenomenon.

    I wish that a state would have the balls to do eliminate speed limits, but my hopes for that are fading by the day.

  2. Have to disagree with you on this one Eric. The roads might have been designed to run at 80+ when new, but today’s road “maintenance” is no where near up to the standards of other first world countries. Even Canada’s road network is in far better condition than the US. One reason for the decline is increased volume. Another is increased vehicle weight, especially trucks with double and triple trailers. But mostly because fixing roads costs money and isn’t politically attractive, so we get lowered speed limits. And Colorado DOT’s fix is often just to place a “road damage ahead” sign a few feet from the pothole. Some of them have been in place for years. Problem solved!

    • Hi RK,

      It depends. Some highways are better maintained than others. But the key point here is that speed limits have been dumbed down generally – across the board. For 20 years, they were dumbed down to 55 – 20 MPH below previously legal speeds and preposterously below the designed-for average speeds in the 80-something MPH range. After a generation had passed, we were “allowed” to drive 70-75 on the same roads.

      It seems fast now – but it’s slow in historic terms and ridiculous in design terms.

      Unless the road (highway) is in terrible shape, driving 80-90 in a modern car is like driving a ’50s car at 60.

      • The legacy of Jimmy Carter. We’re enjoying prosperity too much, so it’s hair shirts and self-flagellation for all.

    • We don’t have potholes in Texas. In east Texas there are some really rough little roads, probably because the locals don’t demand good roads. State and federal roads in east Tx are fine. If you come across some portion of road in Texas that’s torn up, it’s a very brief situation.

  3. Back before instant-on radar I regularly drove 120 mph. The only problem with that was the other drivers doing 100 so we broke a lot of windshields doing that. Probably they would get broken at 55 too but who can drive 55 in wide open country? Wish I’d had stock in Cincinnati Microwave back then.

  4. Eric, you probably know that about 20 or 25 years ago, Montana eliminated daytime speed limits on their highways altogether, and highway fatalities also went DOWN the year after they did that, though the decrease was small, and maybe not statistically significant. Point is, elimination of speed limits did not result in rivers of blood in the streets.

    As I recall, Montana eventually had to re-institute speed limits or face the loss of federal highway funds. I’m sure there’s a fair amount written about it online. At the time, the National Motorists Association liked to hold Montana up as an example for the loosening of speed limits.

    The NMA also claimed that no speed limits indirectly encouraged safer driving practices. For instance, better lane discipline where you didn’t have clovers clogging up the left lane.

    • No – some dumbass who thought he was a race care driver contested a ticket because he thought 120mph on a winding no shoulder two lane with frequent slow moving farm equipment and wildlife in the road was “reasonable and prudent.” He took it all the way to the MT Supreme Court and they ruled that the law was too vague, and so now we all have to endure posted limits on the highways.

      It was a good deal while it lasted. Actually folks could drive slower then if they wanted because anyone else could easily get around them without exceeding any speed limits.


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