Variable speed limits are familiar around schools and road-work zones. Traffic officials are now looking at whether the approach can be used in real time in response to changing traffic and weather conditions in an attempt to reduce auto accidents.

Could real-time speed limits in Colorado reduce fatal car accidents?

If you have had the opportunity to travel in Europe, Germany in particular, you probably noticed that on some roads, drivers were speeding along, literally. Germany’s network of roads is known as an autobahn, and throughout the country, only 30 percent of those roads have a permanent speed limit. So, it’s not unheard-of for some drivers to drive the autobahn at speeds well over 100 mph.

In the United States, every road has a speed limit, and many factors go into determining what that limit is. There has been talk over the years about something known as a variable speed limit (VSL), and it’s an idea that recently generated more news as it could be another method to making our roads safer for everyone.

Weather Should Affect How Fast You Drive

Simply stated, a VSL denotes that a speed limit for a road can vary depending on many factors. A highway speed limit of 75 mph will be reduced when road construction crews are working. The same goes for school zones, where speeds are greatly reduced during certain times of the day.

There are also discussions in many states about applying the VSL philosophy when weather conditions make driving more dangerous. Those conditions could be rain, snow, fog, or even smoke from forest fires.

You would think common sense would take over when such situations occur, and if you find yourself suddenly driving in an inclement condition, you would instinctively adjust your speed to adapt to that condition. However, a study by a traffic research nonprofit organization noted that yearly from 2010-2014, more than 1.1 million auto accidents occurred due to weather-related road conditions, resulting in more than 5,100 deaths. In terms of specific hazardous conditions, rain, snow, and ice cause the largest number of crashes resulting in deaths. That’s why every year, Colorado drivers are reminded to take extra precautions during winter, and one of those reminders has to do with speed. Under ideal conditions, stopping is easy; when roads become wet or slick with snow, stopping becomes a bit more treacherous, and the time it takes to come to a complete stop increases, so the faster you are going, the longer it takes to stop safely.

That’s why more states are looking to adopt VSL and implement new standards that would allow authorities to automatically decrease speed limits to adapt to weather or other road conditions. Five states currently have VSL and others are looking at this approach to decreasing the number of crashes, injuries, and deaths on our roadways every year.

There are benefits as well as challenges when trying to implement VSL.

The Federal Highway Administration has been following VSL in six states that have implemented the system. The states involved are using different methods to determine real-time speed limits on certain roadways, but the goal with each state is the same: developing a comprehensive plan to monitor road conditions and then reduce, in real-time, speed limits until those adverse conditions are resolved. It’s definitely a challenge, as noted by the FHA, but the benefits could far outweigh the hurdles. The most important benefit, of course, would be a reduction in fatal accidents related to weather.

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