A bill to raise the speed limit on Utah freeways to 80 mph — wherever officials determine that is safe — zoomed past its first obstacle on Tuesday.
The House Transportation Committee approved the appropriately named HB80 by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, on a 7-1 vote, and sent it to the full House.
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 good 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.
Dunnigan noted that the state first experimented with some 80 mph zones in 2008. Since then it found that prevailing speeds increased in such zones by only 1-2 mph, and accidents did not increase in frequency or severity. Also, no fatal crashes have occurred in them.
"What we’ve seen is by changing the numbers on the signs, we’re not changing behavior. People are traveling that speed today. And speeds that people are traveling is what we are using to set the limits," said Carlos Braceras, executive director of UDOT. "We’re trying to match behavior."
Daniel Fuhr, superintendant of the Utah Highway Patrol, acknowledged that most drivers expect some buffer above the posted speed limit before they will receive a ticket. He said such buffers exist — "but I won’t tell you what they are" — but they are smaller at higher speeds.
He said anyone doing 85 mph in an 80 mph zone should expect to be ticketed or warned.
Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for the AAA travel-services company, opposed the bill, saying accidents tend to be more severe at higher speeds, and drivers have less time to react to problems. Rep. Janice Fisher, D-West Valley City, opposed the bill for those reasons.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, testified that the higher speed limits should not increase air pollution. "We see essentially no change in emissions from 55 mph to 75 mph, and probably even greater," with modern catalytic converters on cars, he said.
Texas and Utah are the only states that have speed limits of 80 mph or higher. Texas allows 85 mph on one toll road.
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