Another step toward unsplitting speeds
Oregon governor inks speed limit bill, but Illinois, Ohio still struggling with splits

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has signed legislation clearing the way for increased speed limits on Oregon’s freeways. The governor’s signature is the latest step in a gradual trend among state legislatures to review split speed policies.

The speed limit measure, which takes effect Jan. 1, allows the Oregon Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on certain sections of rural interstates to 65 mph for trucks and 70 mph for cars. Those limits are currently 55 and 65, respectively.

The bill’s passage, however, does not guarantee higher speeds.

“It should be made clear to the public that the legislation itself requires that speeds can be raised only if engineering and traffic investigation indicates that a speed increase is reasonable and safe,” Kulongoski wrote in a letter to Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Stuart Foster after signing the bill Sept. 26. “In other words, HB2661 mandates that speeds be increased only if objective evidence exists that an increase is reasonable and safe.”

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which sought the aid of professional truck drivers to influence lawmakers and the governor to endorse HB2661, said the bill benefits highway safety.

“While we would have preferred the legislation totally eliminate the split between cars and trucks, a 5 mph differential is better than 10. In addition, I suspect the higher limits will result in less speed variance between cars since a 70 mph limit will more closely match speeds already being driven,” Spencer said.

The new law also allows ODOT to change freeway speeds in urban areas, where the limit is now 55 mph.

Illinois lawmakers sent a similar proposal to Gov. Rod Blagojevich only to see it vetoed. HB1186 called for cutting provisions in state law that set up a slower speed for vehicles with a gross weight of more than 8,000 pounds on rural highways. Currently, those vehicles are required to travel 10 mph below the 65 mph limit for other vehicles.

Blagojevich cited “serious safety concerns” in vetoing the bill July 28.

The governor’s action confounded OOIDA. “It’s clear the governor does not understand the issue,” Spencer said. “It’s clear he didn’t give sufficient thought to his action before he did it.”

“Highway safety engineers have long recognized that highways are safest when all vehicles are traveling at the same speed regardless of the speed limit,” OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston wrote in a letter to the governor. “In fact, the safety research in this area is irrefutable.”

Lawmakers will return to the state Capitol Nov. 4 and will likely attempt to override the governor’s veto. If lawmakers do override the veto on HB1186, it would become effective Jan. 1.

Ohio lawmakers are also considering legislation to rid their state of split speeds. HB186 and SB94 each would eliminate provisions in Ohio law that set up a slower speed for vehicles with a gross weight of more than 8,000 pounds.

Currently, those vehicles are required to travel 55 mph — 10 mph below the 65 mph speed limit for other vehicles. Under the new rule, all vehicles would have a 65 mph limit. Highways in urban areas would remain at 55 mph for big rigs.

“For nearly 30 years, speed limits have been an issue where various competing agendas all masquerade behind safety,” Spencer said. “The men and women driving the trucks always pay the price for this gamesmanship. As the few remaining states gradually eliminate their split speed policies, it is the men and women driving the trucks safely that deserve the credit.”

—by Keith Goble, staff writer

Keith Goble can be reached at Mark Reddig of Land Line contributed to this report.