Who sets the highway speed limits?

Crawling along I-95 the other day in the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic, I snickered when I noticed the “Speed Limit 55” sign alongside the highway. I wish!

Of course, when the highway is not jammed, speeds are more like 70 mph, with the legal limit, unfortunately, rarely enforced. Which got me thinking: Who sets speed limits on our highways and by what criteria?

In suburban Maryland, they opened a $2.5-billion toll road last year, connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The ICC, or Inter-County Connector, is carrying so little traffic that motorists complain it’s hard to stick to the double nickels (55 mph). So to incentivize more traffic, Maryland lawmakers are talking of raising the speed limit to 70 mph, faster even than the 65-mph speed limit on other interstates.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of those same lawmakers would benefit from a speedier trip from their home districts to the state capital in Annapolis.

Why is the speed limit on I-95 only 55 mph in Connecticut but 65 mph in Rhode Island? And even in-state, why is the speed limit on I-84 just 55 mph from the New York border to Hartford, but 65 mph farther east in “the Quiet Corner”?

Blame the Office of the State Traffic Administration (OSTA) in the CDOT. This body regulates everything from speed limits to traffic signals, working with local traffic authorities (usually local police departments, mayors or boards of selectmen).

OSTA is also responsible for traffic rules for trucks (usually lower speed limits), including the ban on their use of the left-hand lane on I-95.

It was the federal government (Congress) that dropped the Interstate speed limit to 55 mph in 1973 during the oil crisis, only to raise it to 65 mph in 1987 and repeal the ban altogether in 1995 (followed by a 21% increase in fatal crashes), leaving it each state to decide what’s best.

In Arizona and Texas that means 75 mph while in Utah some roads support 80 mph. And mind you, those are just the legal limits, so you can imagine how fast some folks drive.

About half of Germany’s famed Autobahns have speed limits of 100 km/hr (62 mph), but outside of the cities the top speed is discretionary, though a minimum of 130 km/hr (81 mph) is generally the rule. But top speed can often be 200 km/hr (120 mph).

Mind you, the Autobahn is a superbly maintained road system without the bone-rattling potholes and divots we enjoy on our highways. And the German-built Mercedes and Audis on these roads are certainly engineered for such speed.

Interestingly enough, there are two bills (HB 5451 and 5553) up for consideration this month by the Transportation Committee of the Connecticut legislature that would raise the maximum speed limit on our Connecticut highways while also increasing the fines for speeding and reckless driving. So expect some interesting debate on this topic in the coming weeks.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years. He is chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or trainweb.org/ct. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.