Twenty-nine states have raised their speed limits to at least 70 mph since Congress abolished the national 55-mph limit in 1995, and several more states are debating whether to increase their speed limits.
While states that raised their speed limits experienced no increase in the overall number of traffic-related deaths, fatalities per 100,000 people rose 10 percent for women and 13 percent for the elderly, researchers found. There was no increase for men under the age of 65, says the study, which appears in the June issue of the journal Economics Letters.
The study doesn't explain the reasons for the difference, but co-author Thomas Dee, an assistant economics professor at Swarthmore College, theorizes that a higher speed limit increases the disparity of driving speeds and thus the risk of accidents.
"The conventional view is often that speed kills. But some people ... would argue that the variance of speed kills," Dee said Wednesday.
Eric Skrum, communications director for the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based drivers organization that supports higher speed limits called the study's findings "junk."
"When you set (the speed limit) at an appropriate level, you have a higher compliance with the speed limit, less weaving in and out of traffic ... a safer driving environment," Skrum said.
While highway deaths may be increasing for women and the elderly, men are still killed on the roads in far greater numbers. Nearly 28,000 men died in automobile crashes in 2001, compared with more than 13,000 women, according to government statistics.
By Michael Rubinkam