Will higher Utah speed limits reduce crashes or make them more severe?

Research in Utah suggests that higher speed limits reduce accidents, but other research indicates speed can raise accident likelihood and crash severity.

The way that higher speed limits affect traffic safety is an ongoing topic of debate among lawmakers and safety experts. Proponents of higher speeds hold that they reduce speeding and ensure that all drivers travel at similar rates, while advocates of slower speeds argue that high-speed crashes are more severe and difficult to avoid. The question of how speed impacts safety has become especially important for drivers in Provo, as Utah lawmakers have recently increased more state speed limits.

Recent changes and research

According to Fox News, Utah has already increased or announced plans to increase speed limits to 70 miles per hour on stretches of I-15, I-80 and I-215. Last year, the state raised speed limits on some roads as high as 80 miles per hour. Many of the increases are based on a 2013 study from the Utah Department of Transportation, which was used to identify roads that could safely incorporate higher speed limits.

One UDOT study suggests that speed limit increases might actually have positive impacts on safety. After monitoring stretches of I-15 with newly increased speed limits from 2008 to 2012, the study found that incidences of speeding dropped 20 percent. Speed-related accidents also fell as much as 20 percent on some parts of the road.

These findings suggest that faster speed limits may not be as dangerous as some critics worry. Still, drivers should appreciate the fact that more serious crashes are much likelier to occur when vehicles are traveling at higher speeds.

Speed and crash dynamics

Speed can contribute to severe crashes in a few ways, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The following factors can make it harder for drivers to avoid serious accidents while traveling at higher speeds:

  • The vehicle will require a greater distance to come to a full stop, since it will have more momentum.
  • The vehicle will respond differently at higher speeds, which may make accident avoidance difficult.
  • The vehicle will travel more distance while the driver reacts to a situation, which can also make accident avoidance a less likely prospect.

When crashes occur at high speeds, much more energy must be dissipated. This can result in structural damage to the vehicle or catastrophic injuries to passengers. Crash energy increases based on speed, but it increases much more sharply; for instance, a 125 percent increase in crash energy results from a mere 50 percent increase in speed. This means that even slightly higher travel speeds may have disproportionate impacts on crash severity.

Recourse after severe accidents

Even if the UDOT study indicates that accidents decrease after speed limits are raised, speed-related accidents may still affect many drivers this year. With higher travel speeds, the consequences of these accidents may be especially devastating. Anyone who has been hurt in a speed-related accident and believes the other driver was driving recklessly or otherwise acting negligently should think about discussing the accident and options for compensation with an attorney.