A bill that could vastly expand 80 mph speed zones on Utah highways headed toward the home stretch on Wednesday.
The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously passed the appropriately named HB80 — which has already passed the House — and sent it to the full Senate for final consideration.
Last year, Utah added 289 extra miles of 80-mph-speed limits on select rural-freeway stretches. The new bill would expand such zones to any freeway or limited-access divided highways where the Utah Department of Transportation finds that higher speeds make engineering sense.
Also, if officials feel speeds should not rise in some urban sections all the way to 80, the bill would permit raising them from the current 65 mph to 70 mph or 75 mph instead. Utah currently allows 65 mph on urban freeways, while 75 is the default on rural freeways — with 80 on select stretches.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, the bill’s sponsor said studies have shown that raising the speed limit previously increased actual speeds on roads by only 1 to 2 mph on average — and the higher limits matched what people were already driving, and essentially continued to drive.
In previous testimony, the Utah Department of Transportation and Dunnigan had said that no fatalities had occurred in the 80-mph zones. But the Tribune reported last week it found that at least 16 fatalities had occurred there — but UDOT said most were not speed-related, and those that did happen likely would have occurred whether or not the speed limit changed.
Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for the AAA travel services company, disputed that interpretation. She said any crash at such high speeds creates worse damage and injuries — so she said all accidents in those zones are affected by the higher speed.
She was the only person to speak against the bill. “This joyride at 80 mph is not worth the damage it can cause and the injuries,” Fairclough said.
Dunnigan said far more important in avoiding fatalities than speed is wearing a seat belt — but, ironically, the committee on Tuesday killed a bill to toughen seat belt laws.
The Utah Division of Air Quality also testified that vehicles traveling at 80 mph would produce no more air pollution than those at lower speeds currently posted.