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Consider the cost: Speed kills

The Oregon Legislature is considering increasing the maximum legal speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph. Presumably, the rationale for such an increase is to speed vehicle transportation. Yet there is strong scientific evidence that such an increase will lead to more traffic fatalities in this state. Please see http://www.iihs.org/safety_facts/qanda/speed_limits.htm for facts provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

As an emergency physician, I have the painful job of looking people in the eye and telling them they have lost a loved one after a needless vehicle crash. I ask that our legislators rethink this rush to put more Oregonians in the grave.

In addition to reading the above Web site, our legislators should read the literature on road traffic safety. Significant evidence of harm has been reported in states with published scientific analyses of motor vehicle crashes before and after the rural interstate speed limit was raised from 55 mph to 65 mph in 1987-1988.

In rural Illinois, there were approximately 300 additional motor vehicle crashes per month. In rural Minnesota, a similar speed limit change resulted in a 19.2 percent increase in fatalities, a 39.8 percent increase in serious injuries, and a 25.4 percent increase in moderate injuries.

In both states there also was an increase in motor vehicle crashes and mortality on roadways with posted speed limits of 55 mph, suggesting that a 'spillover effect' of more rapid driving on these roads also occurred.

Traffic researchers in New Mexico reported that the rate of fatal crashes nearly doubled in the year after the speed limit was increased. The increase in fatal crashes was attributed to a larger number of single-vehicle crashes, and could not be linked to a change in driver age, seat belt use or alcohol involvement.

Indeed, the researchers concluded that after the speed limit change, 'vehicles on rural interstates are traveling at greater rates of speed, and a larger proportion of vehicles are exceeding the 65 mph speed limit.'

Our neighbors in Washington state also report that the incidence of fatal crashes more than doubled after 1987, compared with what would have been expected if there had not been a speed limit increase. This resulted in an additional average of 26 deaths per year on rural freeways in Washington state. Average vehicle crash speed increased by 5.5 mph.

Oregon has enjoyed a relatively low traffic fatality rate because of well-maintained roads, enforcement of traffic laws, safer vehicles and a model statewide trauma system. We will challenge that system by raising the speed limit. Oregonians will pay the price with their lives or loss of mobility.

I hope I do not meet any of you in my emergency department as a result of a law that further increases traffic speeds, but you never know.

Dr. Jerris R. Hedges is a professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.