There is a Stack Exchange Q&A site proposal for: Transportation (Stack Exchange is a topical Q&A site)
Marginal Revolution: Should speed limits be higher?
Arthur van Benthem, who is on the job market from Stanford, says no:
When choosing his speed, a driver faces a trade-off between private benefits (time savings) and private costs (fuel cost and own damage and injury). Driving faster also has external costs (pollution, adverse health impacts and injury to other drivers). This paper uses large-scale speed limit increases in the western United States in 1987 and 1996 to address three related questions. First, do the social benefits of raising speed limits exceed the social (private plus external) costs? Second, do the private benefits of driving faster as a result of higher speed limits exceed the private costs? Third, could completely eliminating speed limits improve efficiency? I find that a 10 mph speed limit increase on highways leads to a 3-4 mph increase in travel speed, 9-15% more accidents, 34-60% more fatal accidents, and elevated pollutant concentrations of 14-25% (carbon monoxide), 9-16% (nitrogen oxides), 1-11% (ozone) and 9% higher fetal death rates around the affected freeways. I use these estimates to calculate private and external benefits and costs, and find that the social costs of speed limit increases are three to ten times larger than the social benefits. In contrast, many individual drivers would enjoy a net private benefit from driving faster. Privately, a value of a statistical life (VSL) of $6.0 million or less justifies driving faster, but the social planner’s VSL would have to be below $0.9 million to justify higher speed limits. The substantial difference between private and social optimal speed choices provides a strong rationale for having speed limits. Although speed limits are blunt instruments that differ from an ideal Pigovian tax on speed, it is highly unlikely that any hidden administrative costs or unforeseen behavioral adjustments could make eliminating speed limits an efficiency-improving proposition.
[I have not read the thesis, but the key safety gains from raising speed limits come from attracting traffic off the affected roads, see Lave and Elias (1994), who say “We find that the 65 mph limit reduced statewide fatality rates by 3.4% to 5.1%, holding constant the effects of long-term trend, driving exposure, seat belt laws, and economic factors.”]
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