A proposal to raise the speed limit on I-95 north of Old Town from 65 mph to 75 mph may make sense, but legislators ought to be mindful of unintended consequences. In some ways, the proposal can be seen as a metaphor for the dynamic now at work in Augusta, where the Republican majority and governor frame their proposals as easing limits on business to speed economic growth for all.
LD 1557 is sponsored primarily by legislators from Aroostook County. Residents of Maine’s most northerly and rural county frequently must travel to Bangor and regions south. It’s a long journey. Google maps puts the distance between Bangor and Houlton, where I-95 ends, at 119 miles and almost two hours driving time. A driver may encounter just a handful of other vehicles on the trip.
Sometimes laws must reflect reality, and the reality is that most people drive 75 mph or faster on the stretch of highway. The Department of Transportation, which would be authorized by LD 1557 to raise the speed limit, often measures actual average speeds on local roads when it considers changing speed limits. When average speeds exceed the posted speed limit, DOT is likely to raise the limit. A 1999 DOT study found that most drivers traveled at 75 mph on that stretch of interstate.
But it’s not all smooth sailing. If the posted speed limit is 75 mph, many people likely will drive 85 mph. As they approach exits near Howland, Lincoln and Millinocket, they may encounter a truck in the right lane just getting up to speed or a passenger car traveling at 55 mph. More crashes are possible.
Yet studies of the safety fallout from higher speed limits have mixed results. Some studies even suggest fewer deaths when limits are raised.
One fact that should not be in dispute is that more fuel will be consumed if drivers are traveling at 75 mph. A legislator from Madawaska argued that the higher speed would allow businesses to move goods faster and tourists to reach their destinations more quickly. However, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, “gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph.” The department calculates that for each 5 mph over 60 mph, there is an additional cost equivalent to 24 cents per gallon of gas. An increase from 65 to 75, therefore, would cost a driver an additional 50 cents per gallon; 85 mph would push the cost to almost an extra dollar per gallon of gas.
It’s hard to understand, then, how this bill will help businesses with their bottom line.
Not every law is a leash holding back business from charging ahead. And many of the ones that are leashes have carefully been crafted out of concerns for all Maine residents, not just those who own or operate businesses. A proposal such as the 75 mph bill should be able to win favor on its merits without the “good for business” refrain.