WASHINGTON -- More deaths are occurring on the nation's highways because car manufacturers are putting more horsepower under the hood of cars and drivers are using the muscle to go faster than ever, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
A second study, by researchers from New Zealand, also showed that faster cars and higher speeds were adding to deaths on the nation's highways.
"Whenever vehicle speeds increase, death rates also increase," said Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. "And the reverse is true. In 1974 when the national maximum speed limit lowered the limits across the country to 55 mph, fatality rates dropped significantly."
To test the speeds of drivers, the Institute studied the driving habits in six states: Colorado, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Mexico, as well as five major cities from 1996-1999.
In Colorado almost a quarter of drivers were traveling 80 mph or faster. Drivers in Atlanta posted the fastest speeds of the major cities. Despite a 55 mph limit on urban intestates, 78 percent of the drivers typically hit speeds of 70 mph and almost 20 percent are driving faster than 80, the study found.
"Drivers tend to choose speeds they perceive as unlikely to result in a ticket," says Insurance Institute senior transportation engineer Richard Retting. "Presumably, difference in perception of the amount of enforcement among these areas were major factors in the higher or lower travel speeds."
A study at the Land Transport Safety Authority of New Zealand did a broader study of speeds in the United States and also found higher speeds resulted in more deaths.
The New Zealand researchers studied death rates on rural intestates where the speed limits had been increased from 55 mph to 75 mph. Of those, the study finds a 38 percent increase, or about 780 more deaths.
The states included in the study that raised their speed limits to 75 mph were all in the west. For the states increasing speeds to 70 mph, the percentage of deaths rose by 35 percent, or more than 1,100 deaths, according to the study.
Another factor pushing speeds to the limit is what's marketed on television. In studying commercials, the Institute found performance and speed is most often marketed in television commercials.
In reviewing television ads from July of this year, performance was the feature highlighted most often in all car classes. Safety was only mentioned in two percent of ads, according to the Institute's review.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an independent agency funded by insurance companies to conduct roadway research and test vehicles for safety