Raising Speed Limits
One of the most significant areas of state speed legislation in recent years has been raising speed limits. Studies have shown that increasing the speed limit does not necessarily lead to an equivalent increase in driving speed because drivers continue to drive at the rate of speed at which they feel comfortable. Particularly, according to a National Cooperative Highway Research Program study, “A speed limit increase on a high-speed road is generally associated with a less-than-equivalent increase in average vehicle speed: a 10-mph speed limit increase, for example, corresponds to average speeds around 3 mph higher.” An increase in speed limits may be an adjustment to match the speed at which people already are driving. The sponsor of Montana’s enacted 2015 legislation, Senator Scott Sales, expressed in a hearing on the bill that he hoped the legislation would save people time and money.
A few states have recently increased their maximum speed limits to 80 mph. In 2015, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming increased the maximum speed to 80 mph; Montana also increased the maximum speed limit for trucks to 65 mph. Utah passed legislation in 2013 allowing the state DOT to increase speed limits to 80 mph on certain parts of state highways.
Other states have increased speed limits to 75 mph. In 2015, Washington did so. Maine passed legislation in 2013 allowing speeds of up 75 mph on the interstate system and other divided controlled-access highways. Florida passed legislation in 2014 that would have raised the speed limit on state highways by 5 mph under certain conditions, up to 75 mph on limited access highways, but the legislation was vetoed by the governor. In his vetomessage, Governor Rick Scott said, “Although the bill does not mandate higher speed limits, allowing for the possibility of faster driving on Florida’s roads and highways could ultimately and unacceptably increase the risk of serious accidents for Florida citizens and visitors…”
A handful of other states have raised their speed limits to 70 mph as well. In 2015, Wisconsin increased the maximum speed limit to 70 mph, while Maryland and Oregon increased the speed limit on certain stretches to 70 mph. An Illinois bill in 2014 to increase speed limits on toll roads to 70 mph was vetoed by the governor, but that veto was overridden. In his veto message, Governor Pat Quinn stated that “the convenience of increased speeds for drivers on Illinois tollways does not outweigh the safety risks to children, families, and our dedicated public servants.” This proposed increase on toll roads was in addition to a 2013 increase on certain interstate highways from 65 mph to 70 mph. On a section of I-93 in New Hampshire, the limit was increased from 60 mph to 70 mph, and Ohio raised the speed limit to 70 mph on freeways outside of urban areas.
Laws were passed in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming in 2014 to allow an increase in speed limits in specific circumstances. In Idaho, the speed limit can be increased to 80 mph on interstate highways and to 65 mph on state highways if the DOT completes an engineering and traffic study and concludes the increase is in the public interest. Before the speed limit can go into effect, the transportation board, which supervises the DOT, must concur with the DOT’s conclusions. In the last three years, six other states—Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri and New York—also considered legislation to raise speed limits, although those efforts were unsuccessful.
- School zones are a special speed zone in which a lower speed limit is in place based on a road’s or area’s proximity to a school.
- A number of states have introduced legislation related to school zones in recent years, although few of these bills have been enacted.
- In 2015, seven states—California, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Virginia—considered bills related to school zones. Illinois passed a bill specifying that a driver exceeding a certain speed in a school zone is not eligible for supervision rather than incarceration.
- School zone speed legislation was considered but not enacted in Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma and West Virginia in 2014.
Lowering Speed Limits
While the broader trend has been to increase speed limits, a number of states are making legislative efforts to give municipalities authority to reduce speed limits in busy residential and business districts where there are many pedestrians and other vulnerable users. A small reduction in speed can mean the difference between life and death for pedestrians. A 2011 AAA study examined impact speeds and the commensurate risk of injury or death for a pedestrian; small changes in speed can lead to much higher risk of death. The study notes that the “average risk of death for a pedestrian reaches 10 percent at an impact speed of 23 mph, 25 percent at 32 mph and 50 percent at 42 mph.”
Roadway speeds also can have serious implications for bicyclists. For a two-year period, the League of American Bicyclists attempted to track and analyze every bicyclist fatality in the United States in order to glean better insight into what caused the fatalities. According to the analysis, nearly half, 44 percent, of fatalities occurred on high-speed urban arterial roads where there tend to be fewer bicycle facilities. As a recent study from Texas A&M University pointed out, “While high design speeds are viewed as desirable for motorist safety, they are not safe for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
States are acknowledging the needs of local communities that want to emphasize safe roadway environments for pedestrians, bicyclists, school children, people with disabilities and others. In the past few years, several states have given localities the ability to reduce their minimum speeds in order to create a safer travel environment for vulnerable users.
In the Pacific Northwest, both the Oregon and Washington legislatures have recently acted to make it easier for municipalities to reduce speed limits in specified instances. In 2011, the Oregon legislature enacted legislation allowing speed limits of 20 mph, rather than 25 mph. The road authority must confirm that the streets have a traffic volume of fewer than 2,000 motor vehicles per day, with more than 85 percent traveling less than 30 miles per hour, and certain signage requirements must be met, including those to indicate the presence of bicyclists and pedestrians.
The Washington Legislature followed suit in 2013 with a law allowing municipalities to establish a maximum speed limit of 20 mph in a residential or business district. Previously, municipalities were required to undertake time-consuming and expensive studies before they could lower speed limits. The new law however, stipulates that a reduced speed need not be based on any traffic or engineering study. The law also allows a municipality to reinstate the former speed limit within a year of its change without a traffic or engineering study.
Thus far, both Portland and Seattle have taken advantage of the recent law changes to lower speed limits on their neighborhood greenways, which are residential streets that prioritize travel by bike and foot and often include other traffic-calming attributes. Portland has created a 70-mile network of neighborhood greenways where street speed limits are set at 20 mph. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, Portland and Seattle are first and fifth, respectively, for the highest rates of bicycle commuters in large American cities.
New York City, which has launched a high-profile Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic fatalities to zero in the city, took advantage of 2014 New York state legislation to reduce the citywide speed limit to 25 mph. While some streets may have higher or lower speed limits, the de facto speed limit is 25 mph when a specific limit is not posted.
In 2015, a number of states enacted legislation allowing speed limits to be lowered in certain instances. The Indiana legislature enacted a law allowing a locality that is not an urban district to establish a school zone speed limit of 20 mph. Previously, a town or county that was not defined as an urban district was not allowed to enact a speed limit lower than 30 mph. New Hampshire enacted legislation allowing a municipality to petition the state Department of Transportation to create a reduced seasonal speed limit to increase safety conditions on roads that are seasonally congested with pedestrian and bicycle traffic. If the state DOT agrees, the speed limit can be no lower than 20 mph and cannot extend for longer than four months total a year; the municipality is responsible for signage costs.
New Mexico passed a law changing the maximum speed on county roads without a posted speed limit to 55 mph rather than the previous 75 mph. South Dakota authorized townships to establish speed zones on their roads, although no speeds may exceed 55 mph. Four other states—Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Texas—considered, but did not enact bills in 2015 that would have reduced speed limits.