Not so fast: A bill to raise state speed limits veers off track

Faster speeds, little relief

Only about 400 miles of the roughly 1,900 miles of limited-access freeways like I-75 and U.S. 131 meet safety and truck-volume standards that would warrant raising speed limits from 70 mph to 75 mph, according to research done for the Michigan Department of Transportation. In addition, roughly 800 to 900 miles of non-limited access federal and state highways, like M-21 in Clinton County and U.S. 2 in the Upper Peninsula, are eligible to rise from 55 mph to 60 mph. That's out of more than 6,000 miles of 55 mph roadways. Use the sliders below to see what may be eligible for the higher limits.

Limited-access freeways


Source: MDOT research on freeways and highways

Michigan motorists are notorious for going fast (ask anyone from Ohio). You’ve got to get to that cottage Up North, right?

“We’ve been driving 78 mph forever,” Lt. Gary Megge of the Michigan State Police says of state drivers.

But going that fast puts motorists well over the current 70 mph limit, prompting State Rep. Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford, to push legislation that would increase speed limits to 75 mph – and possibly even 80 mph – on the state’s biggest freeways, like I-75 and I-96, and up to 60 on some highways where the current speed limit is 55 mph.

“We’re just trying to get the speeds people are driving to be legal,” said Brittany Lewandowski, Jacobsen’s legislative director.

But a review of research performed for the Michigan Department of Transportation shows that many of the roads where motorists drive fastest would not be eligible for higher speed limits.

Research also shows that higher limits would likely add to the death toll on Michigan roadways; it rose 10 percent in 2015 over the previous year.

For example, if the state’s 70-mph expressways changed to 75 mph limits, deaths could rise 18 percent along those stretches.

Think of it as a balancing act. On the bright side, the drive from Bay City to the Mackinac Bridge would be 10 minutes shorter under the higher limits. But higher 75 mph limits would yield anywhere from three to 16 additional fatalities a year in Michigan, depending on how many of the state’s 70-mph expressways have their limits raised, according to Timothy Gates, a civil engineering professor at Michigan State University who lead the research for MDOT while he was at Wayne State University.

“I believe if we see an uptick in speeds, we will see an uptick in injury and fatal crashes,” Gates told Bridge. “To me, it’s not the direction we want to head.”

Gates’s team first looked at expressways and calculated the cost of going from 70 mph to 75 mph or even 80 mph for passenger cars. Beyond the monetary expense – new signs, renovating roads to a higher design standard – researchers looked at the societal cost: more air pollution, more gas consumption, and more accidents.

The research team later looked at the 55 mph highways and identified areas with “lower risk” that could be eligible for higher speed limits. Its research looked at the cost of raising limits to 65 mph on some of these trunk lines (the 55-mph highways); the current bills only call for a rise to 60 mph from 55 mph.

Tapping brake on speed dreams

Jacobsen’s legislation is currently before the state house of representatives after it was voted out of committee. Lewandowski said he wants a vote before the house goes into recess in June.

Although MDOT officials say no specific roadway has yet been slated for higher speed limits should the legislation pass, they acknowledge that Gates’ research would act as a template for decisions along with input from Michigan State Police, said MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson.

Bridge reviewed the MDOT research that sought to identify which sections of roadway could be considered for the higher limits. It also looked at available speed studies from the State Police and found that many of the roads that may be considered for the higher limits aren’t in the most heavily traveled areas, and they’re not where motorists are already driving the fastest. None are around Metro Detroit.

A number of freeways were not eligible for higher speed limits because either the crash rate was above state averages or truck traffic volume was too high, Gates said.

So, for instance, I-696 may be a commuters’ racetrack just north of Detroit, but the 70 mph speed limit won’t be changed to match those faster speeds.

And if you’re headed to Chicago from Grand Rapids or Detroit, sorry. The limit on I-94 and I-196 will likely remain 70 mph (though a large section of the route from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo, on U.S. 131, is eligible).

To be considered safe enough for a higher speed limit, the roadway must have a crash rate below the state average and meet certain design standards, such as adequate lane and shoulder widths.

Just one-eighth of Michigan highways with a 55-mph limit would be eligible for a 60-mph speed limit, or just under 800 miles.

Speed limits rise across U.S.

If 70-mph expressway limits are raised to 75, Michigan would have the highest speed limits in the Midwest. A high-speed driver would have to head west and cross the Missouri River, go east to Maine, or down to Louisiana to find another state legally hitting 75 mph. Texas has the nation’s highest speed limits, where some expressways are set at 85 mph. Sixteen states have limits 75 mph or higher.

A number of states have raised limits in recent years. Indiana, Illinois and Ohio raised top speeds to 65 or 70 mph in 2011; Maine went to 75 mph.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in an April report, estimates the rise in speed limits has caused 33,000 additional deaths over the past 20 years.

“This is always a trade off. Raising the speed limit means that people will be able to shave a few minutes off their travel time,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the institute, which is funded by auto insurance carriers to study and promote highway safety. Travel times will decline, but deaths will increase, up to 8 percent on freeways and 4 percent on non-freeways that see a 5 mph increase in speed, he said.

“How many lives are you willing to trade for an increase in the speed limit?” Rader asked.

Many speeders won’t get relief

Several long stretches of interstates in Michigan could get the higher limits: I-75 from Bay City to the Mackinac Bridge; U.S. 131 from northern Kent County to Cadillac; I-96 from Lansing to Grand Rapids, and U.S. 131 from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids.

As for trunk lines, long stretches of U.S. 23 between Rogers City and Mackinaw City, U.S. 2 in the Upper Peninsula, and U.S. 31 from Petoskey to Traverse City could see an increase, according to an MDOT report.

But most of those roadways aren’t where motorists are putting the pedal to the metal. Of five interstate locations where the state police found motorists typically driving 80 mph or higher in 2015, three were not eligible for the higher rates, including one spot on I-75 in northern Oakland County where speeds typically hit 81 mph.

The two others: I-96, just north of Grand Ledge and I-75 near Pinconning, about 20 miles north of Bay City.

The same pattern fits on rural highways where the current limit is 55. The roadways with the fastest speeds did not meet the state’s criteria for higher limits, according to and MDOT research and maps reviewed by Bridge.

In the lower peninsula, faster paced roads in Kalkaska, Wexford, Antrim, Osceola, Midland and Newaygo counties did not meet the definition of “low risk,” which would have made them eligible for higher speeds. Some were eliminated because their crash rates were too high, and others for failing to meet other safety standards.

For instance, M-20 in Midland County has a low crash rate but is not eligible because there are too many driveways per mile and the shoulder is not always a minimum of three-feet wide and paved, making it a more dangerous candidate for higher speed limits.

Meanwhile, a 20-miles stretch of U.S. 131 met all criteria but one: it had a K-8 children’s school along the way. That eliminated it from consideration.

Other sections of now-55-mph highways are a better match. For example, parts of U.S. 2 in the Upper Peninsula are both well-suited to higher speed limits and where drivers are already speeding.

But Gates said he is more comfortable with an increase on the interstates, especially if it’s to 75 mph, and not 80. The interstates were designed for vehicles to go 75 mph, he said, but not above that.

Gates said he is less comfortable with the proposal to raise speeds on trunk lines to 60 mph from 55 mph.

Unlike interstates, these mostly rural highways are not all designed and built the same. There are driveways and roads cutting across, they have varying lane and shoulder widths.

Currently, the State Police department is neutral on the bill, said Tim Fitzgerald, legislative liaison for the force.

Opposition brewing

Back in 2005, Michigan had the 8th lowest fatal accident rate in the nation. By 2014, the state was 17th lowest. In 2015, the number of fatal accidents rose in Michigan, to 982 deaths, a 10 percent increase.

Though the number of crashes rose, the rate (fatalities per 100 million miles driven) actually lowered because motorists drove more. Improvements in vehicle and driver safety are credited with lowering the fatality rate substantially over the years. It’s currently a third of what it was in 1975.

So far, fellow legislators have been cool to the idea of an 80 mph limit, and Jacobsen’s office acknowledged that amendments could lower the proposal to 75 mph.

Gates isn’t the only one in opposition. AAA Michigan, one of the state’s largest automotive insurance companies is opposed to the bill if limits could go to 80 mph. If it is set lower, the carrier will consider the proposal, according to Heather Drake, vice president of government relations.

“Given the current conditions of our roadways, we question the safety of traveling the current speed limit let alone driving at increased speeds,” wrote AAA Michigan President Steven Wagner, in a letter to The Detroit News when proposal was for an 80 mph limit. “We are also concerned about the negative effect a speed limit increase will have on newly licensed drivers and senior drivers.”

Higher limits, faster speeds?

The conventional wisdom may be that higher speed limits will mean Michigan motorists will turn I-75 into the Autobahn. If they go 78 in a 70 mph zone, won’t they go 83 if the speed limit is hiked to 75?

Gates said he thinks average speeds will increase if limits are raised, but marginally, perhaps by 1 or 2 mph. Rader, of the Insurance Institute, said speeds will rise too, but equal to the increase in limits.

But Megge, a veteran trooper who has long argued for “smarter” speed limits, disagrees. He said his years working on traffic studies indicates that an increase in speed limits won’t necessarily mean faster speeds.

People typically drive at speeds they feel comfortable with, he said, and using the speed of the “85th percentile” – the speed at which 85 percent of all motorists are below – has been a nationwide gauge for safe driving.

“The speed limit has nothing to do with travel speeds,” the lieutenant said. He noted that speed limits were raised around Flint a few years ago and average driving speeds did not change.

If everyone can comfortably and safely move along at 78 or 80 mph, Megge said, then it is safe. But going too fast is a problem, whether it’s on I-75 or on M-50.

“Excessive speed, no matter where you are, is a danger.”

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dick b
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 11:14am
How stupid can you get. We can't even fix the roads we have because the money just isn't there(?), so lets make the speed limit a little bit higher so someone can get somewhere (maybe) 5-10 minutes earlier, and we can add millions and millions of dollars to just making and changing the signs instead of fixing more roads. Don't concern yourself about driving faster on our substandard highways either, as we will eventually fix many of them. In the meantime, pray that you are lucky. Will many of the new safety gadgets that are being added to our vehicles to save lives be useless at these higher speeds? I hope to never find out. We have enough crazy drivers on Michigan roads now, lets not give them encouragement.
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 1:35pm
If you want to make a real difference raise the truck speed rates to 70 and let us avoid some of the obstructions of truckers passing truckers and road blocking for miles on our interstate routes.
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:42pm
We tried HARD to get that to happen a few years ago. The AAA lobbyist threatened members of a Senate Transportation Committee with an election jihad if any of them approved anything over a 60 limit for trucks, so the safer proposal to end the useless and counter-productive differential limit died in that committee. The ironic thing about this idiotic threat is that the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety sponsored one of the most important studies ever done that proved differential speed limits for truck have no safety value. Fifty years ago AAA was the "best friend" of the motorists. Today they are sworn enemies that support the lowest posted speed limits the public will accept. They support predatory red light and speed cameras. And they happily issue severe insurance premium surcharges to safe drivers caught in enforcement traps for revenue. NO ONE should support AAA. James C. Walker, Life Member - National Motorists Association
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 1:52pm
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 12:36am
I so agree. Leave speed limits as they are. Increasing them is a dumb idea and potentially dangerous.
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:45pm
If the bills passed, the travel speeds might go up by 1 or 2 mph, but the speed variance, tailgating, excessive passing, aggressive driving, left lane hogging, and other bad behaviors would all dramatically decrease to produce more safety. Authorities that oppose the bills are mostly trying to support speed trap ticket revenue. James C. Walker, Life Member - National Motorists Association
Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 4:04pm
"Veers off track"? What is happening on Michigan Roads today is enough evidence against that argument, Mr. Wilkinson. As your map indicates, Michigan Motorists are already driving at higher speeds, and unless you aren't traveling the same speed as other vehicles (which is arguably the safest speed), are none the worse for wear because of it. And most of these roads were designed pre-oil embargo, so the argument about roads not being designed for higher speeds just doesn't hold up. One thing that I would like to see addressed is the differential in speed between heavy trucks and other traffic. There is no reason for most traffic to travel at one speed and large vehicles at a lower rate. All you are doing is creating rolling road blocks and increasing the risk of accidents for everyone on the highway. Other states have just one speed for both types of traffic, and eliminated that problem altogether.
Edith Robbins
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 11:09am
I think there should be truck lanes established where all trucks should have to stay in one lane. Trucks passing trucks causes a lot of traffic problems. The trucks I see on US 23 are already going over their speed limit right now.
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 12:40pm
While some people are driving 78 mph and others are driving 60-65 (yes there are some, I've almost run them over several times and it was probably in the passing lane), increasing the limit WILL ensure people drive faster even if it's only 2 or 3 mph and the gap between slower and faster drivers will get larger. The current gap is already a safety hazard and increasing that gap is only going to exacerbate the problem. If the reason for proposing an increase in the speed limit is to "match what drivers are currently driving", presumably to reduce traffic tickets, then just tell law enforcement to not ticket motorists on the highways unless they are exceeding the limit by a higher margin.
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:48pm
But some command officers order their troops to "Stop and Collect" rather than to "Serve and Protect". This is particularly true of many local and county police and sheriffs departments. Plus the Detroit area state police commander frequently orders his officers to run wolf pack speed traps on Detroit area freeways. You have to fix the limits to end the speed traps. James C. Walker, Life Member - National Motorists Association
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 12:55pm
Bill, you are 100% correct! It is time for us to realize that no one, and I mean no one, is as good of a driver as they think they are. If they were, there wouldn't be so many accidents. Going too fast and impatience with and abuse of drivers who choose to obey they law is likely the #1 cause of accidents, unless distracted driving is #1. I know of two accidents where people could easily have been killed by someone hitting them while texting at high speed.
Sat, 05/07/2016 - 7:51pm
The fatality rate for the last several years has been 1.1 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the lowest in history. If you are in a car for about 15,000 miles a year, you will be killed in a car crash about once in every 6,000 years. In the interest of full disclosure, 2015 will likely be a bit higher fatality rate, maybe 1.15 per 100 M VMT because the economy was much better, more people have fixed driving schedules to get to work, and gas was cheap which leads to more risky trips like going to the bar 25 miles away at night, and more pleasure drivers by young inexperienced drivers with cheap gas. James C. Walker, Life Member - National Motorists Association
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 12:56pm
What is needed is for drivers to slow down. This is tragic if legislators think we need to increase the speed. They're already driving 75-80 on most freeways during rush hour here in Metro Detroit. The speed limit should not increase.
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 4:28pm
Facts: 1) MDOT's reluctance to raise all the limits that deserve it is financial, not safety based. They are happy to have limits posted below the safest levels, so long as they don't have to spend a little money on things like restriping passing zones and signs. 2) Almost all rural trunk line highways were posted at 65 mph prior to 1974. Anyone who says they are not appropriate to drive at 65 mph in modern cars is probably directly or indirectly in the revenue stream from speed trap tickets. 3) ACTUAL, current 85th percentile speeds on our rural freeways are almost all between 78 and 83 mph - so 80 is the correct number IF SAFETY IS THE GOAL. High levels of truck traffic are irrelevant, since posting the proper 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions brings with it a MUCH better behavior of Keep Right Except to Pass. Higher than average crash rates on some rural freeway segments may be CAUSED by the improperly low arbitrary 70 limits. 4) Dr. Gates research had a lot of apples to watermelons comparisons, not statistically valid because the criteria were not equivalent. Higher fatality rates on far west freeways where EMS recovery is much further away, for example, does NOT equate to what would happen in most areas of Michigan with EMS available much closer. 5) Dr. Gates is correct that posting 75 and 80 in the proper segments will only raise the actual travel speeds by 1 or 2 mph. 6) AAA and the IIHS lobby hard for the lowest possible posted limits the public will accept without revolt because a large amount of their profits come from surcharging the insurance premiums of safe drivers caught in speed traps. Their views are as far from unbiased as it is possible to get. 7) Provisions to stop predatory city speed traps were removed from the bills by pressure from Michigan Municipal League cities that depend upon speed trap revenue. James C. Walker, Life Member - National Motorists Association, Ann Arbor
Sun, 05/08/2016 - 9:16am
Just yet another insanely useless bill from our 'let's not propose or pass anything intelligent or needed' legislature. How incompetent and worthless can they get? Just off the top of my head, let's see what they saw as serious 'problems' that needed immediate legislative 'solutions': no helmets (so motorcyclists could land on their heads more often and end up alive but brain dead on public funds), allow fireworks (so everyone could blow off fingers, lose eyes, etc.), stop straight ticket voting (which didn't favor, apparently, GOP voters)... Now this. And this legislature sneaks this junk legislation through, won't allow any facts to get in the way yet they won't address our utterly failing infrastructure, too high cable and electric costs (monopolies who contribute a lot in campaign funds).
doug blacklow
Mon, 05/09/2016 - 9:13pm
When I went to college in MI from 1969 to 1973, the interstates were all 70 mph, and most two lane highways (M-99, US 12,etc) were all posted at 65 mph! Seems that with the safer cars we drive today, those two lane highways could be posted at 65 again.
Michael Hormel
Wed, 05/11/2016 - 1:26pm
No one has addressed the issue of extra pollution, gas consumption, hence more global warming/climate change etc. that will result from this insane proposal (although it was mentioned in the study group's considerations). So it's not just the more serious crashes that will result from higher speed (you cannot argue the physics of this). It will thus result in a public health danger to those not even on the road. So unless you're one of the "flat earthers" who denies the science of pollution co2 research, there are worldwide consequences. As others have said, "all this so you can get to the Big Mack bridge 10 minutes quicker?" Things happen proportionally faster at faster speeds, again, you can't argue against the physics. Will driver reaction speeds keep up? And don't try to tell me you're fine, "it's the other guy." We s/b putting money into more road patrols & adopting a zero tolerance policy towards the speeders & texter's & cell phone users who selfishly think their agenda justifies their unsafe & distracted driving. People s/b driving the posted speed, period. What is the twisted logic that says, "people are breaking the law, so let's change it to make their behavior legal," instead of ENFORCING current laws designed for public safety? 70 & 55mph are reasonable speeds, it you're so anxious to get somewhere 10 minutes earlier, then start 10 minutes earlier. Don't justify weaving in & out of the cars driving the legal limit to satisfy your agenda.
Bob Hogarth
Thu, 08/04/2016 - 3:41pm
Michael Hormel, a response to your comment, "What is the twisted logic that says, “people are breaking the law, so let’s change it to make their behavior legal,” instead of ENFORCING current laws designed for public safety?" I suggest you re-read what MSP Lt. Megge said in the main article & what James C. Walker said in his May 6 post. If you still don't get it, please don't run for public office.