The speed limit on many stretches of Washington freeways will be lifted to 70 mph next month, but shouldn’t result in any pronounced increase in highway fatalities, lawmakers said Monday.
Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison said the proposal should have little actual effect, since most motorists already drive faster than posted freeway speeds. He said public safety remains his top consideration.
Congress recently removed all federal limits, leaving it to the states to decide for themselves. Morrison’s agency has administrative authority to lift the limits to as much as 70. For much of the state, that will mean raising the limit by only 5 mph.
Although Montana has no daytime limits and other Western states are moving to 75, there is no move afoot here to do likewise. That would take a new state law.
Morrison, State Patrol Chief Annette Sandberg and Traffic Safety Commission Director John Moffat will brief legislators on the new speed limits Wednesday. Morrison didn’t want to give details Monday, but legislators said the agency already has given these broad features:
On the federal interstates, stretches that are now held to 55 will go to at least 60 in urban areas and 70 in a few spots.
Areas now limited to 65 mph will go to 70.
Non-interstate federal highways, such as U.S. 101, and state highways still are being studied and limits will be lifted in some areas when the study is complete.
“In most areas, we’re just looking at a 5 mile-an-hour increase, so it’s not real dramatic,” said Rick Olson, spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
House Transportation Chairwoman Karen Schmidt and other lawmakers hailed the news, calling it a good balance of safety concerns and motorist convenience.
“It’s reasonable,” Schmidt said in an interview. “They have carefully looked at all of the engineering and have said they will err on the side of safety.
“The higher limits will actually increase safety in some instances by helping with the flow of traffic.”
The latter was a reference to the “Rule of 85” - an unofficial rule of thumb that says the optimum speed is what 85 percent of motorists choose to drive in a given area. A lower speed limit not only leads to widespread disobedience, but a patchwork of driving speeds that can actually lead to accidents, Morrison said.
“What they’re proposing is what people are doing. That is the unfortunate reality,” said Jonna Van Dyk, spokeswoman for the Traffic Safety Commission.
In some areas, only 13 percent of the motorists adhere to posted limits, Moffat said. On many stretches of freeway where the limit is 55, people are driving in the upper 60s, Morrison said.
Morrison said preliminary figures in Montana show an average speedup of only 2 mph. He said he foresees only negligible increases here.
Morrison said once the plan is released Wednesday, the public will be given 30 days to comment. Within a week after the final plan is adopted, new signs will go up, he said.