For the first time since the most popular new cars were Cutlasses, Pintos and Darts, it soon will be legal to drive 70 mph in Washington.
Workers for the Department of Transportation will change speed limit signs this week on more than 700 miles of interstate highways.
In urban areas, the limit increases from 55 to 60 mph. That includes the 13 miles of Interstate 90 from Pines Road in the Spokane Valley to Geiger Boulevard on the West Plains.
Once they get past Geiger, drivers headed across the Cascade Mountains will be able to drive 70 mph, rather than 65, all the way to the West Side city of Bellevue.
The increase shaves about 20 minutes off a cross-state trip for motorists minding the speed limit.
The Transportation Department is making similar increases on five other interstate highways. Engineers still are studying other highways, like U.S. Highway 395 between Ritzville and Tri-Cities, to determine which can handle higher speeds.
The change comes three months after Congress eliminated the national speed limit that had been in place since 1973. That limit originally was 55 mph, but was increased to 65 mph in rural areas in 1987.
Many national traffic-safety experts argue higher speeds mean more deaths.
But state officials, including Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison, say raising the speed limit won’t necessarily mean higher speeds. People already are driving as fast as they’re likely to go, contends Morrison, who can raise the limit to 70 mph without legislative approval.
A recent survey by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission showed that 65 percent of the state’s drivers favor the increase. Several drivers who stopped at the Sprague rest stop last week shared that attitude.
“I drive 70 now, so I’ll probably push it to 75,” despite Morrison’s assurance to the contrary, said Steve Blind, a traveling salesman who puts about 40,000 miles a year on his car
Ed Smith IV, a senior at Eastern Washington University, said he has mixed emotions about the increase. He doesn’t like the state telling him how fast to drive, but he thinks most people drive too fast.
Smith, a geography major who considers Eastern Washington’s barren scenery “fascinating,” said he may stick with the old speed limit during frequent trips from Cheney to his parents’ home in Tacoma.
State Patrol Sgt. Chris Powell cautioned that higher speeds aren’t legal until highway signs say they are. Some stretches of I-90 will have the new signs earlier than others, and “we will enforce the speed limit that’s posted,” Powell said.
Forty signs must be changed in Spokane, Adams and Lincoln counties alone, said Transportation Department spokesman Al Gilson.
Limits for truckers, cars pulling trailers and most motor homes will remain 60 mph on rural stretches.
Washington is the latest of several Western states to raise the speed limit.
Montana gained national attention for eliminating its daytime speed limit and California recently raised its limit to 70 mph. Oregon lawmakers plan to take up the matter during next year’s legislative session.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Raising the limits