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Published: Wednesday, 12/15/2010

For the sake of public safety, don't raise turnpike speeds

The Ohio Turnpike Commission is up to no good, again. The public entity with too much autonomy is apparently returning to the insane idea of hiking speeds on the turnpike.

Commission members who find validity in a proposal to raise the speed limit for cars and trucks to 70 mph ought to have their heads examined. More frequent trips on the turnpike to clear their muddled thinking might help, too.

The turnpike commission is playing with harmful public policy. To begin with, 70 mph is already the unofficial norm on the pike. People who drive the posted 65 mph appear to be almost standing still as other motorists whoosh by them.

Six years ago, when the commission boosted truck speed limits from 55 mph to 65 mph, the same as cars, semis were already traveling at least that fast. Once they could legally travel 65 mph, trucks routinely tacked on another 5 to 10 mph.

If the turnpike commission sets a higher speed limit for all vehicles using the 241-mile highway, it could soon could give truckers even more reason to speed.

Ever since truck speeds on the turnpike were raised, the number of accidents involving trucks has increased, as has the number of deaths in such accidents.

According to the State Highway Patrol, collisions involving trucks and other commercial vehicles went up 32 percent in the 18 months after the speed limit was increased in 2004. During the same period, a patrol report noted, the number of accidents causing deaths or injuries involving trucks jumped 56 percent.

But that shouldn't be a shock to anyone. When you have massive machinery loaded with tons of cargo flying down the highway that is unable to react quickly to changing traffic or road conditions, accidents are likely. The faster a rig travels, the longer it takes to stop. Add driver distractions and not enough sleep to the mix, and the nightmare of wayward 18-wheelers worsens.

A high percentage of all traffic fatalities involve a crash with some kind of truck, and a tractor-trailer rig truck colliding with a compact car doesn't offer a good outcome for the smaller vehicle. Statistics show that passenger vehicle drivers account for a staggering 75 percent to 80 percent of the fatalities in car-truck accidents.

In about 27 percent of fatal truck accidents, where the truck drivers were at fault, the drivers had at least one speeding conviction. By comparison, studies find 19 percent of passenger vehicle drivers in a fatal vehicle accident had a prior speeding conviction.

Despite the danger, truckers trying to meet delivery deadlines drive fast. And they may choose the turnpike instead of toll-free secondary roads if that's the quickest way to move freight.

Turnpike commission members leaning toward lifting the speed limit for all vehicles, estimate truckers could shave 15 to 20 minutes off the time it takes them to traverse the pike from the Indiana border to the Pennsylvania line.

Commission chairman Joseph Balog, who suggests speedier traffic could also aid commerce and the local economy, insists that the added revenue from increased truck traffic is beside the point.

Evidently, he and two others of the five voting members on the panel believe "the trade off of higher speed is to draw more vehicles back to the turnpike, and make parallel roads safer."

This is where the thinking gets really nutty. Commission member Edward Kidston, mayor of Pioneer, a rural village in northwest Ohio near U.S. 20, stresses that big trucks going too fast on two-lane routes are too dangerous for the traveling public. Agreed. But his solution is to move that recklessness to the toll road.

"We want to encourage them [trucks] to get on the turnpike. It will improve our safety immensely," he said.

So State Rt. 2 will be safer. However, if you frequent the turnpike, good luck dodging super-sized trucks speeding 75 mph and faster to their destinations. The turnpike commission should slow down on any resolution to speed up toll-road traffic.

Motorists on the turnpike are not magically immune to the safety concerns that motivate Mr. Kidston and company. It's crazy to expose the traveling public to added peril on the turnpike in the hope of mitigating risk elsewhere.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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