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Pump the Brakes or Hit the Gas? Lawmakers Debate Speed Limits

By Jonathon Bates | Oct. 8, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Slowing down when driving a vehicle, even just a little bit, can be the difference between life and death. A study by AAA examined vehicle speeds when they crashed into pedestrians and found that 10% of pedestrians died when hit by vehicles traveling at 23 mph. But that figure jumped to 25% if the car was going 32 mph, 50% at 42 mph, 75% at 50 mph. And, at 58 mph, 90% of pedestrians died.

This year, at least 13 state legislatures enacted speeding and speed limit laws, with debate mostly centered on whether local governments should have the authority to lower speed limits, what is the safest way to pass emergency or stopped vehicles and what additional penalties are needed to persuade lead-foot drivers to slow down.

Over the past decade, at least 11 state legislatures have passed laws giving local governments more flexibility to lower their speed limits. New York, Boston, Seattle and Portland, Ore., are just four of the cities that have taken advantage of that newfound flexibility.

Over the past decade, at least 11 state legislatures have passed laws giving local governments more flexibility to lower their speed limits.

The New York Legislature, for example, passed a law in 2014 to give New York City the authority to lower citywide speeds by 5 mph, to 25 mph. Laws passed in recent years in Oregon and Washington state permitted localities to set maximum speed limits on local roads below the state’s maximum limit. Washington’s law enabled localities to determine safe maximum speeds, allowing them to decrease the limits at intersections but limiting decreases to not less than 20 mph. Oregon authorized localities to set speed limits that are 5 mph slower than statutory speeds for roads located in residential districts.

Police, Emergency Worker Safety

Speeding is a safety concern not only for localities but also for state transportation departments and law enforcement agencies. A new South Dakota law allows for variable speed limits in highway work areas and on portions of the interstate. Variable speed limits allow governments to dynamically raise or lower speeds based on weather, congestion, road maintenance, construction and other conditions. At least 25 states grant such authority to state agencies or localities and allow the laws to be implemented at various times of day or night. According to the South Dakota Department of Transportation, the state’s first use of variable limits will occur at two locations and is expected to reduce car crashes, crashes involving snowplows and damage to guardrails requiring repair.

Colorado, Indiana and South Dakota amended their “Move Over” laws, which require drivers approaching stationary vehicles such as tow trucks and emergency vehicles to change lanes or slow down. Colorado launched a campaign to raise awareness of its law, while Indiana and South Dakota enhanced criminal penalties for violating their laws. Every state has enacted some type of Move Over law.

Since Congress repealed the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit in 1995, every state has responded by setting its own speed limits. Twenty-two states have set the maximum speed at 70 mph, 11 states allow 75 mph on certain highway segments and eight states allow speeds over 80 mph, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Eight states allow speeds up to 65 mph, Hawaii caps it at 60 mph and the District of Columbia allows a maximum speed of 55 mph.

Must Go Faster…

Not all legislatures are asking drivers to pump the brakes, however. Since 2017, at least seven states have approved laws that could lead to higher speed limits under certain circumstances, a trend that will likely continue in other states. Montana, for example, enacted a law in 2019 that raised the speed limit for trucks on interstate highways from 65 to 70 mph, and Kentucky passed a law that added two highways—Interstate 165 and the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway Extension—to the list of highways on which the secretary of transportation may increase the speed from 65 to 70 mph.

Three states approved speed limit increases in 2020. Colorado now allows higher speeds on rural highways and directed the state Department of Transportation to prioritize raising speeds on roads connecting rural towns to cities, schools and other heavily traveled corridors. The department will set higher speed limits on rural highways if it determines that such increases will not endanger public safety. Mississippi increased the speed limit for school buses transporting students on interstate highways from 50 to 65 mph. In 2019, Oklahoma lawmakers allowed the state Turnpike Authority to increase the speed limit on turnpikes from 75 to 80 mph beginning in July 2020.

Texas allows the fastest speed in the country. On a 41-mile section of State Highway 130 between San Antonio and Austin, drivers who feel a need for speed may drive 85 mph.

Curbing Covid Speeding

Some states have been grappling with a surge in speeding since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to Ohio’s Turnpike Authority, citations for “excessive speeding”—typically 20 mph or more above the posted limit—doubled in the first half of 2020 from 129 to 263, even though passenger vehicle traffic was down 79% from 2019. Citations for speeding over 100 mph spiked 87% in California between March and April 2020 and 60% in Iowa and Nebraska. At least two states—Iowa and Virginia—enhanced penalties this year for excessive speeding.

New York City also reported that traffic deaths during the pandemic have outpaced all traffic deaths from the previous year. Citing a 300% spike in fatalities in July over the same month in 2019, city officials announced they would be expanding the use of 25 mph limits to eight additional streets.

Other states have initiated partnerships to enhance enforcement resources and educational efforts to combat speeders. For example, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee launched a multi-jurisdictional campaign to crack down on dangerous driving, dubbed “Operation Southern Shield.” The campaign’s message to drivers is simple, “driving the speed limit saves lives.” And New York City is in its sixth year of “Vision Zero” to improve the safety of city streets and lower pedestrian fatalities.

The 2020 legislative session may have been speedy one due to COVID-19, but the debate over speed limit policies endures. Going forward, lawmakers will continue to wrestle with questions of where drivers can speed up and where they should slow down.

Jonathon Bates is a policy associate in NCSL’s Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.

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