HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania drivers pay the highest gas taxes in the country and soon will be able to drive faster for it.
A law that hiked the gas tax also gave transportation officials keys to raise the speed limit to 70 mph on stretches of interstate where the limit is now 65 mph.
State officials identified three test areas for the higher limits - on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate 80 and Interstate 380 - last summer. They'll soon announce where else a higher limit will be posted on 1,300 miles of eligible highway.
Many drivers itch for the chance to open up the throttle, but not everyone agrees such increases are safe.
“Lawmakers are raising speed limits, but we haven't yet seen companion legislation to repeal the laws of physics,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Crashes at these high speeds overwhelm the safety systems built into modern cars.”
State officials say they're taking safety into account. The Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Turnpike are splitting the nearly $276,000 tab to study the effects on traffic safety of a 5 mph increase in the speed limit.
Initial results will help determine how and where to expand the 70 mph zones, said Richard Kirkpatrick, a PennDOT spokesman
The full study won’t be done until the summer of 2016, said Eric Donnell, director of the Thomas D. Larson Transportation Institute at Penn State. He described the research as in “very early stages,” making it premature to suggest its conclusions.
Donnell noted, though, that Pennsylvania is part of a trend in which states are adopting higher speed limits on rural highways.
It is one of 19 states with a top speed limit of 70 mph, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twelve others - mostly out west - have top speeds of 75 mph. Utah allows 80 mph travel on some highways. In Texas, drivers are allowed 85 mph on a privately-operated toll road between Austin and San Antonio.
Rader said the insurance institute strongly opposes such high speed limits. The group is popularly known for rating the safety of passenger cars. Rader noted that those ratings are based on crashes involving vehicles traveling 35 or 40 mph.
A common strategy for setting speed limits pegs them to the speed at which 85 percent of motorists travel in an area, according to the insurance institute. The drawback is that most people exceed the posted limit - whatever it is - a little bit.
Lawmakers who proposed higher limits in Pennsylvania argue for them in light of a decline in traffic deaths - about 22 percent nationally since 1995, when Pennsylvania rolled out its 65 mph limits.
But Rader’s group points to a subsequent study that tied higher speed limits to an increase in rural traffic deaths. Rural traffic fatalities were 35 percent higher in states with 70 mph speed limits than those with 65 mph limits, the study found found.
Despite the safety concerns, the insurance industry has not noticed a spike in claims or rate increases from increased speed limits, said Michael Berry, of the Insurance Information Institute.
He, too, noted that speeding is already a leading cause of traffic deaths. In 2013, before Pennsylvania saw the expanded speed limits, more than one-quarter of traffic deaths in the state were related to speed, according to PennDOT.