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Speed

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Every so often, I have need to travel across Oregon, and that’s a long way.

The Portland to Ontario stretch of Interstate 84, alone, is about 375 miles. At 65 miles an hour, that’s a drive of five and three-quarter hours (at speed limit, non-stop). At 70 miles an hour, you can shave a half-hour off that. Not massive, but it adds enough. It can make a difference.

For decades speed limits on Oregon roads famously were lower than almost anywhere in the west; cross the border into California or Nevada or Idaho or Washington, and you could instantly speed up. That also means plenty of drivers passing through those states probably speed right through Oregon, too.

More recently speeds have risen, not by a lot but somewhat. Beginning in March 2016 most interstate speeds east of the Cascades went from 65 to 70 miles an hour, and some highways in very lightly populated area – much of Highway 97, for example – went from 55 to 65.

The increases were resisted for a long time by safety advocates concerned that higher speeds could lead to more fatalities.

Maybe they have. The Eastern Oregonian at Pendleton reported this week that in the months after the speed increase in 2016, fatalities along the affected roads did increase, noticeably. (The story then went into some of the grisly details, of course.)

However, it also noted that the fatalities dropped in 2017, while inching up again this year.

So what do we draw from this?

First, the numbers of fatalities were still not large, and amounted to a small sample size. They added up to 11 crashes on those hundreds of miles of affected roads, including massive stretches of busy interstates. The numbers were small enough that drawing serious conclusions about the effect of the change in speed limits – just five miles an hour on the freeways – would be problematic.

Second, the decrease in the number of fatalities in the second year suggests that maybe there wasn’t much of an effect or, if there was, that people were adjusting to it.

It’s something worth continuing to watch. But there’s not enough here to draw many conclusions.
 

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