Speeds rising on metro Atlanta highways

There’s the posted speed limit. And then there’s how fast people go.

While the two are usually miles (per hour) apart, the state Department of Transportation hopes to bring them together when it raises speed limits in some areas. The increase will put limits as high as 70 miles per hour on 95 miles of metro Atlanta freeways. New signs are expected to be posted by the end of the month.

The new limits are largely in line with how quickly people drive on those roads anyway, said Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for Georgia DOT. On I-85 in Gwinnett County, for example, most vehicles already travel between 65.3 and 71.3 miles per hour, though the speed limit is 65. It will increase to 70.

Faster speeds are great for September Corley, a Snellville resident who commutes 45 miles to work.

“I already thought the speed limit was higher than it was,” she said. “Nobody does 55 or 60. Nobody does it.”

Dale said most metro Atlanta drivers stay within about five miles per hour of posted limits. The state looks at speed limits every three years, she said. Legislators approved a bill last year that allowed for 70 mph speeds in urban areas for the first time. The maximum speed limit in rural areas is already 70.

“It’s one of the more well-received, positive things we get to do,” Dale said of raising speed limits.

» INTERACTIVE MAP: See where metro Atlanta speed limits will be raised

Though higher speed limits are a boon to late commuters, they also mean more accidents and more fatalities, said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. With higher speeds, there is less time to stop and more velocity on impact.

“There are more catastrophic crashes, more catastrophic outcomes, more serious injuries,” she said. “There’s a direct correlation between speed and severity.”

While she said a certain percentage of the population will obey the speed limit, others will hit the gas even harder if they don’t think they’ll get caught.

“Generally, we will see some creep when it comes to speed limits,” she said.

Denyse Watson is one of those creepers. The Smyrna resident said she usually goes over the speed limit. If it’s 70, she said, she’ll go 75 or 78.

Kim Stewart, a spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by insurance companies, echoed Hersman’s concerns. She said as drivers go faster, they’re testing the limits of vehicles that weren’t made to withstand high-speed crashes.

Stewart is particularly worried about beginning drivers, or others who may feel pressured to keep up with traffic. In 2012, she said, a third of national motor vehicle fatalities — 10,219 people — were in accidents in which speeding was involved.

“Raising speed limits may be politically popular,” she said, “but, from a safety perspective, it’s not the most prudent thing to do.”

Captain Mark Perry, with the Georgia State Patrol, said he doesn’t think higher speed limits will have an impact on either tickets or accidents. Traffic moves together, he said, regardless of the posted speed.

Perry said while speed may be a contributing factor in some accidents, it’s distracted driving, failure to yield and other issues that are more of a problem for drivers.

Those like Brad Deep, who lives in Sandy Springs, think the higher rate is a “fantastic idea.” He drives 70 miles per hour no matter what the speed limit says, though he doesn’t think he’ll go any faster, even if the cars around him do.

“It just feels right,” Deep said. “A lot of people don’t pay attention to what the speed limit is.”

Knowing that people may be driving faster around her makes Sharla Lyons, a Sandy Springs resident, nervous.

Lyons said she hates driving in Atlanta. Already, she said, drivers aren’t paying attention. Allowing them to go faster will just increase the chances that something will go wrong.

“That’s going to raise my anxiety, I know,” she said. “I would have to keep up. …I know they’re going to go 75, five miles over the speed limit, and the cops will let it pass. That’s just too fast.”

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