In a society where the default settings are “busy” and “rushed,” the Maine Department of Transportation’s decision to raise the speed limit on much of Interstate 295 from 65 to 70 mph will likely be a popular one. But year after year, speeding is consistently a factor in one-third of all fatal crashes. In fact, the faster you’re going, the higher the likelihood that any accident that happens will be fatal. In light of these real safety risks, state officials should boost the law enforcement presence on I-295 along with the posted speed.
The DOT hasn’t always had the authority to alter the speed limit. That responsibility was in the Legislature’s hands until last year, when lawmakers passed a bill shifting it to state regulators. The sponsor of the legislation found support for his position in a federal study that concluded that at 58 experimental sites where speed limits were raised, the number of crashes dropped. This research, though, and similar studies fail to take into account how much distracted driving contributes to highway accidents.
One of the more dangerous forms of distracted driving — text messaging behind the wheel — results in nearly 25 percent of all crashes each year, according to the National Safety Council. Texting takes the motorist’s eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel and causes a reaction time similar to that of a drunken driver. It’s chilling to think of someone already so impaired being allowed to operate at a higher speed.
Granted, Maine has tough penalties for texting while driving, and last month, police and highway officials kicked off a campaign against distracted driving. There’s no reason to doubt law enforcement’s commitment to this effort. Whether their ranks are large enough to carry out this mission is another question. Twenty-seven positions are still vacant in the state police, though 13 new troopers were added in April, Col. Robert Williams, chief of the state police, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network recently.
What’s more, it’s reasonable to conclude that vacancies also make it harder for state police to do other parts of their job — like cracking down on speeders. Advocates of raising the speed limit say it doesn’t mean everyone will speed up. But there will always be drivers who want to leave the pack far behind, and when the pack is driving faster, so will the aggressive motorist, increasing their capacity to evade law enforcement.
Raising the posted speed has been cheered as a pragmatic move that will make drivers’ lives easier. However, this scenario won’t unfold as envisioned along I-295 between Gardiner and Tukey’s Bridge in Portland unless the police presence there is stepped up to acknowledge the increased risk to travelers.