GUILDERLAND, N.Y. — Standing outside the Guilderland Travel Plaza and waiving his right against self-incrimination, Ryan Lynch said what many drivers on the New York State Thruway have signaled for years: They can’t drive 65.
“I try and stay around 80,” said Mr. Lynch, 22, a student at Rochester Institute of Technology who was midway through a six-hour trek home to central Massachusetts on a recent afternoon. “People want to go where they’re going.”
Mr. Lynch was just one of several motorists interviewed during a recent pit stop who said they liked the idea of a new state bill that would raise the speed limit on some of the state’s major highways to 70 miles per hour, a five m.p.h increase that would bring New York in line with many other states.
Indeed, only a handful of states — including many of New York’s Northeastern neighbors — cap the limit at 65, something that Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara says doesn’t take into account major advances in automotive technology, better engineering of roadways and drivers simply getting accustomed to zipping along.
“People are more comfortable driving at this higher speed,” said Mr. Santabarbara, a Democrat who worked as a civil engineer before entering the Assembly, where he is sponsoring the bill. “It can be done safely, as other states have shown. So I think it’s time for us in New York State to revisit it.”
Of course, few things, besides legislative pay raises, happen quickly in the state capital. The bill — if passed and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul — would not immediately cause a bevy of new “70” signs to go up: Any increase would have to be implemented by either the State Department of Transportation or the New York State Thruway Authority, depending on the roadway. Neither the department nor the authority would comment on pending legislation.
Under the bill, the state’s transportation commissioner or the Thruway authority could raise the limit on more than a dozen stretches of upstate asphalt, including the Northway — the Adirondack highway leading to Quebec — and the Southern Tier expressway. (No changes would take effect in New York City or any of its suburbs.)
Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, also declined to comment on the proposal, and the bill’s route may be complicated by its lack of a Democratic sponsor in the State Senate, in which the Republicans are in a significant minority, as they are in the Assembly.
Still, the legislation can claim bipartisan support: Its Senate author is Thomas F. O’Mara, a Republican from the state’s Southern Tier, a lush and largely agricultural region where long stretches of highway can challenge even those with a high tolerance for boredom.
“We have a lot of wide open country,” said Mr. O’Mara, noting that speed limits would not increase in urban or most suburban areas. “It’s really just going to be the more rural areas of the Interstate System.”
Mr. O’Mara added that he had received “amazingly positive feedback” from constituents, and “surprisingly little negative comment.”
Still, the bill is likely to face an array of opponents citing the potential for a higher speed limit to cause more traffic deaths and accidents. One major critic of increases is AAA, which has commissioned and published a variety of research casting doubt on the need for speed, as well as voicing general concern about the increase in other “unsafe driving behaviors,” including running red lights and getting behind the wheel while tired, high or drunk.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, speeding killed more than 11,000 people nationwide in 2020, and was a contributing factor in nearly 30 percent of fatal accidents.
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In New York, data from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research in Albany shows the number of speed-related fatal crashes ticking up to 364 in 2021, a 34 percent increase from 2017.
Jake Nelson, the director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA, said that raising the speed limit would invariably lead to more deaths.
“This is not a data driven policy and it’s poor for safety,” said Mr. Nelson, adding, “It’s clear to me that this is more about getting New York’s maximum posted speed limit in line with” that of most other states.
Officials note that driving at speeds over 60 m.p.h. also uses more gas. But Mr. Santabarbara says that fuel efficiency in newer vehicles is “like night and day” from past generations, which didn’t have the benefit of hybrid and even all-electric vehicles.
According to the 2022 automotive trends report from the Environmental Protection Agency, fuel efficiency has improved and emissions have declined, though some of those gains have been offset by “market shifts away from cars and towards sport utility vehicles and pickups.”
States set speed limits using a variety of methods and measurements, including the so-called 85 percentile rule, which refers to the speed “at or below which 85 percent of the drivers travel on a road segment,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. Local government agencies also set speed for roads, bridges and highways they own and manage in their area.
New York’s speed limit on its major highways — including more than 500 miles of Thruway — has been capped at 65 m.p.h. since 1995, long before the mainstream adoption of innovations like lane departure warnings and collision avoidance systems. But those systems, Mr. Nelson countered, are often only included in newer, more expensive vehicles.
“So if lawmakers in New York are willing to sacrifice the lives of low-income vehicle owners,” he said, “then by all means enact that legislation.”
Speed limit battles across the nation have often become politicized and tangled in events far beyond the shoulder of the road, perhaps most famously during the 1970s energy crisis. In 1974, President Richard Nixon forced states to limit highway speeds to 55 m.p.h. as a condition for federal highway funding in an effort to curb the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
That limit was cast aside by an array of states in the late 1980s, some of which have gone even higher than 70, even as federal agencies have continued to warn about the dangers of speeding. Several states have roads with 75 and 80 m.p.h. limits. One highway in Texas has a speed limit of 85 m.p.h.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group funded by automobile insurers and insurance associations, says its research has found that a five m.p.h. increase “is associated with an 8 percent increase in the fatality rate on interstates and freeways.”
The Federal Highway Administration agrees, noting that “studies clearly show that higher speeds result in greater impact at the time of a crash, which leads to more severe injuries and fatalities.”
Accidents also have potent emotional and even economic impacts, said Philip Miatkowski, the director of research for Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle use and pedestrian safety group, adding that even the best drivers — with the best technology — make mistakes.
“It’s a huge cost to society, not to mention all the pain and suffering that happens for people’s loved ones,” said Mr. Miatkowski. “So shaving off a couple of seconds, a couple of minutes between New York and Albany, I think we would say — all the safety experts would say — is really not worth it.”
Still, many of the drivers stopping at the Guilderland rest stop, just west of Albany, were voicing support for a quicker commute, including Jack Dee, a lawyer from Tonawanda, N.Y., who said that raising the speed limit would just be acknowledging the reality of the road.
“You get on the highway and you put your cruise control on 65 and everyone passes you and you’re slowing down traffic,” said Mr. Dee, 74. “And if you get in the car and put just cruise control at 75, you pass a few cars and everybody is still passing you.”
But opinion was not monolithic. One of those expressing doubt about the proposal was Supratim Sen, who lives in India, where the speed limit on many highways is even lower: 100 kilometers per hour, or 62 m.p.h.
Mr. Sen, who was traveling back to Boston — at 65 m.p.h — after visiting his son at Cornell University in Ithaca, said that increasing the limit would just give license to those already breaking the barrier.
“Anything more would just entice people to violate it,” he said, adding, “You just can’t be questioning every law.”
Source : TheNewYorkTimes