Bill to expand Utah’s 80 mph speed zones crosses finish line
Goes to governor • Senate votes 21-4 to give final OK to expansion of higher-speed zones.
Published: February 21, 2014 08:49PM
Updated: February 21, 2014 08:18PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo The Legislature has approved a bill that would allow 80-mph speed limits anywhere in the state highway officials deem they are safe.

Utahns, start your engines: A bill to vastly expand 80 mph speed limits on the state’s freeways crossed the legislative finish line Friday.

The Senate voted 21-4 to approve the appropriately named HB80 and sent it to Gov. Gary Herbert for his signature.

Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, the Senate sponsor, called it “the funnest bill of the year.”

Last year, Utah added 289 extra miles of 80 mph stretches on selected parts of rural freeways. 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.

In addition, if officials believe speeds should not rise all the way to 80 in some urban sections, the bill would permit raising them from the current 65 mph to 70 mph or 75 mph. Utah currently allows 65 mph on urban freeways, while 75 is the default on rural freeways — with 80 on select segments.

The only opposition from senators this week came from those who protested raising the speed limit in the same year they killed an effort to toughen seat belt laws, which would have allowed police to ticket violators without first pulling them over for a different violation.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored the failed seat-belt bill, said while road fatalities have been dropping overall, Utah deaths related to not wearing seat belts have remained constant. She said accidents at higher speeds could be catastrophic without more use of seat belts.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, the bill’s sponsor, told lawmakers earlier that studies in test 80 mph zones — which the state has had for five years — have shown that raising the speed limit increased actual speeds on roads by only 1 to 2 mph on average.

The higher limits matched what people were already driving and essentially continued to drive.

The Utah Department of Transportation and Dunnigan initially testified this year that no fatalities had occurred in the 80 mph zones. But The Salt Lake Tribune subsequently learned and reported that at least 16 fatalities had occurred there, although UDOT said most were not speed-related and likely would have happened whether or not the speed limit changed.

The Utah Division of Air Quality also testified that vehicles traveling at 80 mph would produce no more air pollution than those at currently posted lower speeds.

Texas and Utah are the only states that have speed limits of 80 mph or higher. Texas allows 85 mph on one toll road.