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Lawmakers in some states consider changing speed limits

By Keith Goble
state legislative editor

Legislators in a number of states this year have offered bills to alter the speed that some, if not all, vehicles can travel. For the most part, legislators took up causes to increase vehicle speeds or make sure all vehicles traveling their state’s roadways are traveling at roughly the same speed.

Land Line has gathered information on major state actions and what sort of changes could result. Here’s the lowdown.

Illinois
For the third time in recent years, legislation making its way through the Illinois statehouse would bring an end to split speed limits in the state.

The Senate voted 45-10 in late March in favor of the current attempt to eliminate the provision in state law that set up slower speed limits on rural interstates for vehicles weighing more than 8,000 pounds. Currently, those vehicles are required to travel 10 mph below the 65 mph speed limit for other vehicles.

The bill – SB540 – would allow the Illinois Department of Transportation to increase large truck speeds to as much as 65 mph. It now heads to the House for further consideration.

Rep. Robert Flider, D-Decatur, the bill’s House sponsor, made it clear that even if the bill is signed into law it doesn’t guarantee elimination of the speed gap.

“The bill allows the state to consider authorizing uniform speeds. It wouldn’t mandate a change, but just to consider it,” Flider told Land Line.

Despite the support this year’s effort has enjoyed to this point, the forecast for the legislation is cloudy.

Attempts in 2003 and 2004 to get uniform speed legislation enacted were met with vetoes by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In both instances the House and Senate initially approved the legislation by veto-proof margins only to fail to maintain those tallies when it came to voting for an override.

Blagojevich has said he fears that faster trucks would mean bloodier wrecks because the force of impact is stronger the faster a vehicle is traveling.

OOIDA and other trucking industry officials have fought for the bill’s passage for years. They cite federal statistics showing that split speed limits actually lead to more accidents.

Flider cited those concerns as reasoning for taking up the effort.

“Studies have shown that uniform speed limits are safer in many instances. There are occurrences of a car driver coming upon a truck and suddenly realizing that truck is driving a lot slower. That can create some challenges on a busy highway,” Flider said. “It seems to me, and I think studies have concluded, uniform speed limits actually would be safer as long as everybody follows the speed limit.”

The biggest obstacle to passage again could be getting it past the governor, he said.

Arkansas
Gov. Mike Beebe has signed a bill into law that could result in all traffic traveling 10 mph faster along some highways in Arkansas.

The new law directs the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department to study two-lane and four-lane highways where the speed limit is 55 mph to determine if the maximum speed could safely be increased to 65 mph. It also requires the department to complete the study and present its findings to lawmakers by fall 2008.

To minimize the cost to the state, the study will be conducted as part of other routine studies on roads.

Idaho
The Idaho Senate Transportation Committee killed a bill that would have done away with the state’s split speed limit. OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said the lawmakers were gun-shy to pursue legislation because of phone calls and e-mails from constituents who opposed the change.

“OOIDA member Jim Moore of Caldwell, ID, was there to testify in support of uniform speed limits, and there was no one testifying against it,” Spencer said. “But these legislators reacted to what they were being told by people living in their districts, people who opposed eliminating split speed limits.”

Spencer said it goes to show that it is always important to communicate to lawmakers how you feel about a bill.

“One should never assume that others are speaking out so there’s no need for you to add your objections or your support,” he said.

The bill – S1075 – called for tweaking the speeds on interstate highways in the state to 70 mph for all vehicles. Existing state law allows cars to drive 75 mph while large trucks are limited to 65 mph.

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said there would be improved safety on the roads if both types of vehicles were traveling at the same rate of speed.

“Differential speeds cause people to change lanes more often,” Corder, a trucking company owner, told Land Line before the committee vote.

“There are more difficulties caused by sideswipes and people changing lanes abruptly because people realize someone is going much slower in front of them. So, there are more interactions going on.”

Kentucky
Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed a bill into law that allows for higher speed limits on Kentucky’s rural interstates and parkways.

The new law, previously SB83, calls for the speed limit for all vehicles to be increased to
70 mph – up from the current 65 mph. Speed limits on the state’s urban interstates will be unchanged.

“The time has come to increase the speed limit on Kentucky’s interstates and parkways,” Fletcher said in a written statement after the bill signing. “Data from other states and conditions for implementation in this legislation give me confidence that 70 miles per hour will not mean a loss of highway safety.”

The bill requires an engineering safety study be performed before any speed limit increase. After that, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet would review the parts of roadways where the maximum speed limit could be increased.

Nebraska
Gov. Dave Heineman signed a bill into law that allows drivers to travel faster along two stretches of roadway near Omaha.

The new law increases the speed limits from 60 mph to 65 mph along two four-lane highways. They are U.S. 275 from Fremont to Omaha and a stretch of state Route 75 from Bellevue to its interchange with Interstate 480 in Omaha.

It focuses solely on highways that are part of the state highway system but not part of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

The change will make speed limits in Douglas County consistent with those on the same highways outside the county.

Oklahoma
Large trucks traveling through Oklahoma can continue to drive at the same speed as all other vehicles. A bill in the House has died that sought to reduce truck speeds in certain areas of the state by 15 mph.

Sponsored by Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, the bill called for trucks to be slowed from 70 mph to 55 mph while driving on the state’s interstate highways through urban areas. All other vehicles would have been allowed to continue to travel at the current speed limit.

Morrissette said the change is needed because trucks cause problems by driving too fast.

“I think (trucks) cause accidents because they just zoom right through I-35 and I-40,” Morrissette told The Oklahoman.

Opponents said requiring trucks to drive at speeds slower than other vehicles does not promote safety on the highways. In fact, they said it does exactly the opposite by requiring that vehicles are constantly in conflict with each other.

Utah
Two bills were offered early this year in Utah that called for changing speed limits. One called for slowing trucks while the other sought to speed up all traffic.

Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, introduced a bill that included a provision to increase speeds for truckers and others traveling on rural interstates and other limited access routes to
80 mph – up from the current 75 mph limit. The speed limit along urban interstates and other roads would have increased from 65 mph to 70 mph.

The provision to increase the speed limits, however, was removed from the bill that included several other provisions.

Another bill called for slowing trucks down along those same stretches of roadway by 10 mph. All other vehicles would have been cleared to continue to travel at the current speed limit.

Sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, the bill would have lowered truck speeds from 75 mph to 65 mph while driving on rural interstates and limited-access highways. The 65 mph limit on urban interstates would have remained unchanged for trucks and cars.

keith_goble@landlinemag.com

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