CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Here's the skinny on 70 mph

May 30, 2005

Remember back in 1973, at the height of the Arab oil embargo, when President Nixon mandated a 55-mileper-hour speed limit on the nation's interstates?

That nearly drove me crazy.

Like many Americans, I made a habit of fudging on the existing 70 mph limit. I cruised the highways at around 80 mph, making excellent time to all my destinations. Fifty-five put a major crimp in my style.

We had a chance to go back to 70 mph when President Clinton and Congress undid Nixon's mandate in 1995, but Indiana settled on 65, much to my disappointment.

So you can imagine my satisfaction when the General Assembly passed a bill this year that will bump Indiana's rural interstate highway speed limit back up to 70, effective July 1. My guess is the vast majority of Hoosiers were also ecstatic.

It's an interesting phenomenon, since almost every study you can dig up shows a direct correlation between an increase in speed limit and an increase in highway fatalities. We really don't care if we're more likely to die; we just want to go faster.

The Insurance Institute of Indiana has always lobbied against a higher speed limit, according to President Steve Williams. He says the reasons people use to promote an increase really don't make any sense.

Reasons like: the faster you go, the less congested traffic will be; or, the roads were designed to accommodate higher speeds, so the roads will be safer and move traffic more efficiently; or-the funniest of all-if we bump the limit to 70, people will only drive 70. Yeah, right.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the real keys to safety are, 1) paying attention; and 2) keeping enough space between you and the other guy.

You might imagine, as I did, that converting every interstate speed limit sign in Indiana would be an expensive project that would be put out to bid. Then some lucky Indiana sign company would reap an unexpected windfall producing thousands of new signs to the tune of six or seven digits in revenue.

Not so. As it turns out, the state estimates only 600 signs will be changed statewide. What's more, all the work will be done in-house, according to Ryan Gallagher, traffic engineer for the Greenfield district, which includes Marion County and is one of six districts in Indiana.

Gallagher estimates that 130 to 150 signs in his district will be changed. Older signs will be replaced; newer signs, with a more reflective coating, will be altered by bolting a big "70" over the existing "65." He'll have about 10 vehicles and 15 people handling the job over a four-day period.

You might also wonder how Indiana stacks up against other states in the speed limit department. We are one of 18 states with a 70-mph daytime interstate speed limit. There are also 18 still at 65 mph and, surprisingly, a dozen at 75. Hawaii boasts the slowest, with a 60 mph limit.

Texas stands alone with a 75-mph limit during the day and a 65-mph limit at night. I wonder how closely the line is drawn between dusk and dark on those night-time tickets.

Here's an interesting twist. If you hit the highway Friday, July 1, for your holiday weekend, you'll still be looking at signs that read 65 mph. The four-day window for changing the signs is July 5-8.

So, will you get busted if you're driving 70 mph between July 1 and the time the signs are actually changed? No, according to 1st Sgt. Brian Olehy, spokesman for the Indiana State Police. The law says you can drive 70 mph on July 1; it doesn't matter what the signs say.

Now, if you're driving around 80 like I used to do, you're probably going to be in trouble.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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