WASHINGTON -- States that raised their speed limits to 70 mph or more saw a dramatic increase in the number of people killed in traffic accidents, according to a report released Monday by an auto safety group funded by insurers.
The study, compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and based on data collected by the Land Transport Safety Authority of New Zealand, determined 1,880 more people died between 1996 and 1999 in the 22 states with higher speed limits.
A separate review of six states by the institute found drivers traveling the fastest they have since long before Congress repealed the 55 mph national speed limit in November 1995. In Colorado, which has a speed limit of 75 mph, researchers observed one in four drivers going above 80 mph. In California, where the speed limit is 70 mph, one in five drivers was clocked at 80 mph.
The New Zealand government agency estimated the death rate for the 22 states that raised their speed limits on rural interstates in 1995 and 1996.
The 10 states that raised limits to 75 mph - all in the Midwest and West - experienced 38 percent more deaths per million miles driven than states with 65-mph limits, or approximately 780 more deaths.
The 12 states that raised their limits to 70 mph - including California, Florida, North Carolina and Missouri - saw a 35 percent increase, or 1,100 additional deaths.
Geographical differences in states may have contributed to the numbers. For example, the report said, drivers may go faster in Western states where cities are farther apart. The report didn't examine the effects of other trends, such as the increasing number of sport utility vehicles on the road then.
The Insurance Institute said there is no doubt, however, that when speed limits increase so do deaths. When the national speed limit of 55 mph was adopted 1974, fatality rates dropped, the Insurance Institute's chief scientist Allan Williams said.
The Insurance Institute's separate study of speeds in Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, Colorado and California also found that when rates are raised on rural interstates, speeding increased on urban interstates.
Average travel speeds on urban interstates in Atlanta, Boston and Washington were the same as or higher than on rural interstates near those cities, even though the speed limits on those urban interstates were 55 mph. In Atlanta, 78 percent of drivers on one urban interstate exceeded 70 mph, the report found.
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Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: http://www.iihs.org