Many drivers on long, lonely stretches of Interstates 80 and 29 might like to push that gas pedal to the floor and get where they’re going a little quicker.
They see nearly empty lanes, far from populated areas, and wonder what harm would come if Nebraska inched up from 75 mph speed limits or if Iowa allowed speeds of more than 70 mph.
But lawmakers in Nebraska and Iowa should let Texas and other states mess with faster speeds.
Texas started this trend with an 85 mph speed limit on a 45-mile stretch of toll highway between San Antonio and Austin. Utah set an 80 mph limit for certain sections of road. Now some other states are considering faster limits, too.
The Midlands shouldn’t floor it. State data show that each time Nebraska and Iowa have raised speed limits on major highways, deaths and injuries have increased. This is true despite advances in safety technology like air bags and stiffer cabins.
An average of 22 people died in Interstate highway crashes each year after Nebraska set its top speed limit at 55 mph in response to federal oil-saving mandates in the 1970s. Another 1,051 people were injured annually.
An average of 33 people have died on Interstates each year since Nebraska increased the Interstate speed limit back to 75 mph in 1996, and an average of 1,344 people have been injured. Iowa’s 70 mph bump in 2005 saw a similar increase.
But the difference is clearest in the worst years of each stretch. The worst years for Nebraska Interstate fatalities with 55 mph speed limits came in 1976 and 1980, when 28 people were killed. The worst year for Nebraska Interstate fatalities with 75 mph speed limits came in 2002, when 57 people were killed.
The good news is that over the long term, traffic deaths and injury crashes appear to be heading the right direction, years after the Midlands’ 75 and 70 mph adjustments. Officials aren’t sure how much of that has to do with higher gas prices and less traffic, or with safer cars and roadways.
But speed remains a key contributor to many crashes. Even slight increases in speed limits add more speed in each direction to head-on crashes, making them deadlier, safety officials say.
Officially, the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety and its companion in Iowa, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, don’t take a position on whether speed limits should change in either state.
But data compiled by the agencies suggest that speed limits are high enough. Traveling faster than 70 mph or 75 mph costs more in lives, fuel and insurance claims.
And it doesn’t save that much time. Traveling 100 miles — roughly the distance between Kearney and North Platte — takes only 10 minutes longer at 75 mph than 85 mph. So the point of diminishing returns appears to have been reached.
Let states like Texas and Utah flirt with faster speeds. In the Midlands, take your time and enjoy the drive.