Coloradans driving over 50 mph not as safe as they may think, new AAA study finds

Colorado drivers going the speed limit but exceeding 50 miles per hour are not as safe in their vehicles as they may think, according to a new crash test study conducted by the American Automobile Association.

The study crashed vehicles at three speeds — 40, 50 and 56 mph — and measured sensors on corresponding crash test dummies representing an average-sized man to determine a human’s extent of injuries.

The impact of a crash at 40 mph represented a 15% risk of serious or worse overall injury, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. However, the collision at 50 miles per hour indicated a 59% risk while the 56 mph crash indicated a 78% risk of serious or worse injury.

“What we commonly perceive as safe — 50, 60, 70 mph are what the speed limits are set up as — but, generally, if you’re going the speed limit, and it’s above 50, you’re not safe,” said Skyler McKinley, spokesman for AAA Colorado. “The speed limit is not the safe flow of traffic based off this research.”

Today, 41 states — including Colorado — allow 70 mph or higher speeds on some roadways, AAA said.

In Colorado, 33% of all fatalities and 33% of all crashes in 2018 had a speed-related component, AAA said. Across the country, a 2019 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found rising speed limits cost nearly 37,000 lives spanning 25 years.

The most recent AAA study found at 40 mph, the car faced minimal intrusion into the driver’s space when crashed, AAA said. At a crash speed of 50 mph, the driver side door opening was noticeably deformed along with the dashboard and foot area. Six mph higher and the vehicle interior was “significantly compromised” with the dummy’s sensors registering severe neck injuries and likely leg fractures.

At both 50 and 56 mph, the steering wheel’s upward movement caused the dummy’s head to go through the deployed airbag, causing the face to smash into the wheel which showed a high risk of facial fractures and severe brain injury, AAA said.

“It’s true that cars are getting safer, to a point,” McKinley said. “But higher speed limits effectively cancel out the benefits of vehicle safety improvements, such as airbags and improved structural designs. The faster a driver is going before a crash, the less likely it is that they’ll be able to get down to a survivable speed even if they have a chance to brake before impact.”

Higher speed limits not only increase the danger for those inside the vehicle but for those outside cars, too, McKinley said.

The number of pedestrians killed annually on Colorado’s roadways has nearly doubled since 2009, according to analysis by AAA Colorado.

In 2009 and 2010, there were 47 and 36 pedestrian deaths respectively statewide. In 2017 and 2018, the numbers were 92 and 89. The total number of Colorado deaths over the span is 636.

The Colorado increase surpasses a 55% nationwide rise in pedestrian deaths over the same period, according to AAA.

“Forty miles per hour is not safe for any pedestrian or bicyclist,” McKinley said. “35 is not safe, even 25.”

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