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Speed limits in most states set by sense, not science

Have you ever found yourself driving on a road and feeling an itch to pick up the pace above the speed limit? It might be that you are among a statistical 15 percent of drivers who just have more confidence in your feel for the road than most other drivers.

In most states, including Texas, it is the sense of the majority that tends to set speed limits. This might surprise many readers who might have assumed that it was all done by strict application of the rules of physics with the aim of ensuring the greatest level of safety possible for motorists and pedestrians.

According to the Federal Highway Administration here's what really happens. Engineers do a volume study of driving behavior. They determine the average speed drivers use along a stretch of road. The presumption is that drivers will drive at whatever speed they feel the road will allow.

Engineers then take the average speed and set the speed limit for the road at 85 percent of that. The effect is that 85 percent of the drivers will obey the limit naturally. The other 15 percent are the ones that would be speeding. They would probably be the ones more likely to be responsible for an injury-causing accident.

The 85th percentile peg is an idea that reportedly developed out of a 1964 federal study. Its key finding was that the risk of an injury-causing accident increases when a vehicle travels a great deal faster or slower than the average flow of traffic around it.

Experts today offer the view that a lot has changed in the 50 years since that study was done. Traffic volume is higher. Road structures have changed a lot too, what with divided interstates and such. The mix of trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians isn't the same as it was then, either. Sizes of vehicles aren't even the same.

As a result of these observations there is increasing awareness that there is more that can be done with road design to reduce speeds and fatalities. Some advocates for change even suggest that an objective of no traffic deaths is achievable and should be the goal.

What do you think?

Source: FiveTHirtyEight.com, "Why The Rules Of The Road Aren’t Enough To Prevent People From Dying," Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Jan. 15, 2015

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