Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Speed-loving legislators would lift NC limit to 75 mph

June 17, 2013 


— When our legislators want to move fast, by golly, they move fast.

Take Sen. Neal Hunt’s proposal to let drivers go 75 mph on some North Carolina highways. It would bump up the state speed ceiling established 17 years ago at 70 mph.

Hunt, a Republican from Raleigh, filed the legislation in early April. It zoomed through the Senate in nine days, passing in a 45-1 vote.

Don’t look for protracted deliberations Tuesday when the House Transportation Committee takes up the 75 mph bill. Quick approval is expected, with minimal debate, in the committee and later the full House.

North Carolina would become the 17th state to let drivers go this fast on at least some rural freeways. There are 75 mph roads now in just two other eastern states (Maine and Louisiana), and in all but three states out west. A few Texas roads are posted at a sizzling 85 mph.

Safety experts worry that more speed will cause more crashes and more deaths. Going faster gives drivers less time to react to hazards, and it multiplies the destructive force of every accident.

“This is just not a good idea,” says David L. Harkey, director of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. “When you’re traveling at a faster speed, you’re more likely to be involved in a crash. And the higher speed is going to result in more likelihood of injuries occurring.”

States’ speed limits have clicked higher and higher across the country since 1995, when Congress repealed a law that had set a national limit of 55 mph. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health blamed the increased speed limits for 12,545 deaths nationwide between 1995 and 2005.

Some legislatures have mandated wholesale speed increases on many roadways, but North Carolina is taking a more cautious route.

Hunt’s bill sticks with the approach chosen by the General Assembly in 1996 when it approved speeds of 70 mph. It authorizes the state Department of Transportation to allow the higher speed only where it determines that 75 mph is “reasonable and safe.”

Kevin Lacy, DOT’s chief state traffic engineer, said traffic studies and crash histories will help determine where it’s OK to drive faster.

“We’re not going to run out and start changing signs the day the General Assembly passes the law,” Lacy said. “The roads we bumped up to 70 mph were among the safest roads in our state before we did it, and after we did it. They continue to perform very safe.

“Where you have an expectation of a lot of wrecks and higher speeds would tend to create more problems, those are the roadways we’re not likely to select. Other states that did make blanket decisions saw 35 (percent) and 40 percent increases in fatalities on their highways. We’ll be very cautious,” Lacy said.

The legislation carries the momentum of political support from senators with proven predilections for pushing that gas pedal.

Court records show that Hunt racked up five speeding convictions between 1988 and 1998. Four of his seven co-sponsors also have speeding records, including Sen. Bill Cook, a Republican from Chocowinity in Beaufort County, who collected five tickets between 1995 and 2011.

Hunt acknowledged his speeding record in April, and he pointed out that his slate has been clean for more than 14 years. Cook did not respond to a request last week for comment.

Some of the early candidates for 75 mph speeds are the multi-lane, divided roads now posted at 70 mph. They include parts of U.S. 64 and 264 in eastern Wake County and parts of U.S. 70 and Interstates 40 and 95 in Eastern North Carolina.

“If we can safely travel on certain freeway segments at higher speeds, then that can reduce travel time and bring communities closer together,” said Joe Milazzo II, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that lobbies for transportation improvements.

In the past year, at the regional group’s request, DOT has raised the speed limit to 70 mph on parts of the 540 Outer Loop in northern Wake and U.S. 1 in southern Wake. DOT also is considering a similar proposal for the Triangle Expressway toll road in western Wake.

Milazzo sees TriEx and these other roads as plausible candidates for eventual upgrade to 75 mph. “It does make sense to consider it, because these freeways have good design standards,” Milazzo said.

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