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Utah’s 80 mph zones to be permanent, more test zones may come

Highway driving » Results from three year tests show no fatalities, accident increases.

First Published Sep 19 2012 01:17 pm • Last Updated Sep 19 2012 10:48 pm

Speed demons rejoice: Permanent 80 mph speed limits are coming to two sections of Interstate 15 in southern Utah. And legislators signaled Wednesday that they may hit the accelerator to create more 80 mph "test areas" around the state.

The Utah Department of Transportation three years ago created two 80-mph test zones near Fillmore — in areas selected because they are away from populated areas, without many curves or mountains and have a history of few speed-related accidents.

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Studies found that average speeds there increased only by 2 mph — from 83 to 85 mph. Accidents actually decreased in one test zone by 11 percent, and by 20 percent in the other. No speed-related fatalities have occurred in either area during the test.

"There also was a 20 percent reduction in drivers exceeding the speed limit," UDOT Deputy Director Carlos Braceras told the Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee. He said the higher limit essentially just legalized how fast drivers were already traveling.

With such results, Braceras told legislators that his agency is taking steps to make the higher speed limits permanent in those sections within a few months.

Also, UDOT has two other test areas that were more recently created near Beaver and Parowan. Braceras said studies have shown similar speed and safety findings there. If trends continue, he said UDOT will move to make those 80 mph limits permanent in 2014.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who sponsored a 2008 bill that allowed testing higher speed limits, proclaimed the higher speed limits a success. He also said he wants to expand 80 mph test zones in many other areas — including more on I-15 in southern Utah, and maybe on I-80 to Wendover and on sections of I-15 and I-84 in Box Elder County.

"When we initially presented this, there were concerns that if we raised the speed limit from 75 to 80 mph that people would really travel from 90 to 100 mph," he said. "That didn’t happen. The average speed only increased a couple miles an hour."

He said his initial bill already allows UDOT to create more test zones along I-15 from Nephi to Cedar City. But because UDOT has been careful to select only prime areas most likely not to have problems from higher speeds for tests, Dunnigan said UDOT may not create more test zones "without a little love from the Legislature" — and will push more legislation for that.

The committee gave him a unanimous vote Wednesday to support the general concept of expanded testing — saying results so far indicate that it is safe.

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Dunnigan said he will work with UDOT to craft a bill it can support.

"I don’t want people to die or get hurt. But doing this does not increase travel speed very much," Dunnigan said. "Most people are already traveling 80, so we are making legal what a majority of people are doing."

Utah and Texas currently are the only states that have any speed limits higher than 75 mph. Most Utah freeways in rural areas have 75 mph limits, while the limit is 65 mph in urban areas.

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