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Fatal crashes spike on Kansas highways after speed limit climbs to 75 mph

The 75-mph speed limit is a natural for Kansas drivers.

The highways are broad, free-flowing and not scarred with rim-bending potholes. It should be as safe as anywhere to drive at higher speeds.

“In Kansas, it makes perfect sense for it to be 75,” said Bobbi Caggianelli of Overland Park, who commutes daily to Topeka on Interstate 70.

But does it?

Three years after the state raised the speed limit 5 mph to 75 on certain highways, fatalities and injuries are rocketing, according to new numbers compiled by the state Transportation Department.

The overall number of crashes is flat, but highway deaths jumped 54 percent since 2012 on the seven highways where the speed limit was raised.

Those highways, covering 804 miles, include rural stretches of Interstate 35, Interstate 70, U.S. 69, Interstate 470 near Topeka and Interstate 135 north of Wichita.

Overall, 48 people were killed in 38 wrecks on those seven highways in the two years before the speed limit was raised in mid-2011. In the two years after the speed limit was raised, 74 people were killed in 59 wrecks.

Injury accidents are up, too, increasing by 13 percent in the last two years compared with the two years before the speed limit went to 75.

Heavily traveled I-35 was one of the highways with the biggest increases in fatalities. Fatal wrecks doubled to 18 on I-35 in the two years after the speed limit increased compared with the two years before it was raised.

State highway officials aren’t ready to pin the blame for rising highway deaths on the higher speed limit, but national traffic safety experts think it follows a pattern seen in studies elsewhere.

“I’m not raising a red flag,” said Chris Herrick, planning director for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Highway engineers, he said, need to drill down further to examine what precisely caused the wrecks before blaming the higher speed limit approved by the Legislature.

Did the passengers wear seat belts? Was the driver on a cellphone? Was the driver intoxicated? Did the vehicle hit a deer?

“We just haven’t done enough study,” said Herrick, adding he would like to have four or five years of data before reaching a conclusion.

“We would like more time to figure out whether the 75-mile-an-hour speed limit was good policy,” he said.

Kansas is among 15 states that have speed limits of 75 mph or higher on some highways. Utah, Wyoming, Texas and Idaho have some highway segments posted at 80 mph. Two years ago, Texas opened a toll road connecting Austin to San Antonio with the country’s highest posted speed limit of 85 mph.

Kansas had a 70-mph speed limit in place since 1996, a year after Congress repealed the national maximum speed limit set at 55 mph for urban highways and 65 mph in rural areas.

In 2011 the Kansas Legislature — without much discussion about traffic safety — bumped the state’s maximum speed limit to 75.

Supporters argued that raising the speed limit would serve as an economic development tool because state highways would be more attractive to vacationers and truckers.

The jump in Kansas highway deaths since the speed limit was raised mirrors what studies have revealed elsewhere, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“Higher fatalities is what we would expect,” Rader said. “This is moving in the direction that study after study shows is the result of raising the speed limit.”

For example, a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health attributed spikes in highway death rates to increases in the speed limit.

The study found a 3.2 percent increase in all road deaths attributable to higher speed limits following the 1995 repeal of the federal speed limit.

The biggest increases in highway fatalities were on rural interstates compared with urban highways. The study blamed 12,545 deaths and 36,583 injuries from 1995 to 2005 on increased speed limits.

When speeds are higher, drivers have less margin for error to deal with emergencies such as less reaction time and greater stopping distances. And crashes that occur at higher speeds tend to be more severe.

“Raising speed limits always gets people to their destinations faster, but there’s always a cost,” Rader said.

He cautioned that more analysis of the Kansas numbers is needed before reaching a broad conclusion about the effects of raising the speed limit.

More could be learned if engineers compared the highways with the 75-mph speed limit to similar types of roads where the speed limit didn’t change, Rader said.

Some drivers are leery of the higher speed limit because it encourages motorists to go even faster, further increasing the chances of severe wrecks.

“On the open road, I don’t have a problem with 75 if the police would enforce 75, but they don’t,” said Michael Walker, a retired bus driver from Belton. “When they say 75, they don’t mean 75, they mean 85. If you have a wreck at 85 miles an hour, you’re going to tear up a whole lot of stuff.”

Many drivers say they are comfortable driving 75 mph, especially in the wide open rural areas of the state where the traffic thins out.

“I can sit in the right lane and just go 75 miles an hour with the cruise control and not have to worry too much about other drivers,” said Sara Simpson, a Wyandotte County resident who frequently travels I-35 to Wichita to see family. “You’re just basically going straight the whole time. I feel pretty safe.”

Some drivers think the speed limit should be even higher because cars are traveling at speeds higher than 75 anyway. They argue that the real safety problem is drivers puttering along at 65 mph or slower in the passing lane.

Although drivers say the increases in fatalities are worrisome, they agree there could be other factors leading to the fatal crashes. They think Kansas is an ideal location for the higher speed limit.

“I’ve driven in mountains and high-risk areas where I did think the speed limit was ridiculous, and I went slower,” said Judi Justin, of Newton, Kan., who frequently travels the state’s highways. “But here I don’t feel that way. It’s a straight road, and it’s clear. It’s not like you’re going through mountains and around dangerous curves and things like that.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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