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Your next car may not allow you to speed on the highway

More than 37,000 Americans have been killed in high-speed crashes in the past 25 years, and automakers are now under increasing pressure to limit the top speeds of vehicles.
Image: Cars on Interstate 405 during rush hour in Westwood, Los Angeles, on July 10, 2015.
Cars on Interstate 405 during rush hour in Westwood, Los Angeles, on July 10, 2015.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

As many as 37,000 Americans have been killed on the highway in the past 25 years as a result of increased speed limits, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In some states, speed limits have now climbed as high as 85 mph since Congress repealed the National Maximum Speed Limit in 1994. And, according to U.S. safety regulators, excess speed plays a role in about 26 percent of all highway fatalities. With ever more powerful vehicles taking to the roads every year, automakers are coming under increasing pressure to take steps to limit the top speeds of their vehicles.

Swedish automaker Volvo said last month it will cap the top speed at 112 mph in its cars, starting with the 2021 model-year. That’s well above even the fastest legal limit in the U.S., but federal records show it’s not unusual for speeders to exceed that number — and the faster you go, the lower the chance of surviving a crash.

“Because of our research, we know where the problem areas are when it comes to ending serious injuries and fatalities in our cars,” said Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Cars. “And while a speed limitation is not a cure-all, it’s worth doing if we can even save one life.”

America began phasing out the National Maximum Speed Limit that was put in place in 1974 in response to the first Mideast oil crisis. Noncompliance was high and there was strong pushback from states like Nevada and South Dakota. In the early 1980s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to get motorists to slow down by requiring that speedometers couldn’t read out anything above 85 mph. The blowback from consumers eventually led the NHTSA to drop that rule. In 1987 the speed limit was raised to a maximum 65 on interstate highways, and Congress repealed the maximum speed limit entirely in 1995.

Currently, the fastest highway in the country is a 41-mile stretch of State Highway 130 in mid-Texas, where passenger vehicles can top out at 85 mph. But for those with a real need for speed, their mecca is the German Autobahn, which has thousands of miles of roadway with no speed limit whatsoever. Some sections do now have restrictions: Travelers driving the 600 miles from Cologne to Berlin will barely find a spot to drive above 100 kmh, or 62 mph — lower than most U.S. superhighways today. And there are proposals backed by Germany’s powerful Green Party that would limit speeds to 130 kmh, or 80 mph.

When it comes to limited-access highways, not everyone buys into the conventional wisdom that “speed kills.” In some places, “increasing the speed limit (will) make the roadways safer,” contends safety expert Tom Sohrweide. He claims his studies show that what’s more important is keeping traffic moving at consistent speeds, with relatively minor gaps between the fastest and slowest vehicles. Sohrweide doesn’t propose eliminating speeds entirely but recommends they be set at the 85th percentile, or the speed at which 85 percent of traffic is moving.

Not everyone buys that argument, however — and some experts contend that lowering speed limits is necessary because of the high number of distracted drivers. Others point out that lower limits reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

What’s clear is the debate over vehicle speeds is only going to continue.

CORRECTION (April 10, 2019, 2 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the highest speed limit in the country, on a 41-mile stretch of State Highway 130 in mid-Texas. The speed limit is 85 miles per hour, not 130 mph.