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900 EXTRA DEATHS ON RURAL HIGHWAYS LINKED TO 65-MPH LIMIT

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Traffic fatalities on rural interstates soared for a second straight year after states were allowed to raise speed limits to 65 mph, resulting in at least 900 extra deaths over the two-year period.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a report to Congress Monday that traffic deaths on rural interstates increased by 13 percent in 1988 after rising by 18 percent the year before.By contrast, deaths in 1988 rose by 8 percent on urban interstates and by 0.4 percent on all other highways. In 1987, deaths fell slightly on urban interstates and other highways, the NHTSA said.

The NHTSA said an increase in miles traveled accounted for only a third of the increase in rural interstate traffic deaths in the 38 states that raised speed limits by July 1987.

By comparing statistical records, the agency estimated there were 900 more deaths - 309 in 1987 and 591 in 1988 - than would have been expected without a return to the 65-mph speed limit in those states, the agency said.

The speed limit on interstate highways was lowered to 55 mph in the 1970s to conserve energy. However, in response to a public outcry, states were allowed in April 1987 to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on stretches of interstate in areas with fewer than 50,000 people.

By July 1988, 40 states had increased speed limits on rural interstates and the 65-mph limit covered 89 percent of the 32,280 miles of the U.S. interstate highway system.

In all, there were 47,079 traffic deaths in the United States in 1988 - 2,277 on urban interstates, 2,836 on rural interstates on 41,966 on other roads.