Some state roadways may soon be seeing higher speed limits as Minnesota joins a national push to let drivers go faster.
This summer, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will begin examining the state’s 55 mph roads to determine which ones can be bumped up to 60 miles per hour.
The change comes from an amendment tacked onto the budget bill at the end of the legislative session that requires MnDOT to examine all roads with a 55 mph limit — about 6,700 miles — to determine whether the increase is possible.
The work will continue until 2019, but speeds will increase as decisions are made, meaning speed limit signs could start to change as early as this year, said Peter Buchen, assistant state traffic engineer at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Raising speed limits has become a national trend, said Kara Macek, director of communications for the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, which represents the nation’s state highway safety offices.
“People just like to drive fast — sort of a bellwether indication of our frantic lifestyle and our need to get places quickly,” Macek said.
Since 2011, Texas, Ohio, New Hampshire, Maine, Kansas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana and Illinois have increased speed limits on some stretches of their roadways. Idaho, Utah, Kentucky and Wyoming can increase speed limits based on the results of engineering studies, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A 41-mile toll road in Texas is the nation’s fastest road with an 85 mph speed limit.
Many states, like Minnesota, have enlisted their departments of transportation to survey the roads before determining where speed limit increases will happen, Macek said.
Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, pushed for the amendment. Last year he tried to mandate higher speed limits without a MnDOT study. After that failed, he tried the version that passed this session.
Minnesota law mandates roads in urban districts at 30 mph speed limits and interstate roads at 65 or 70 mph. Roads not designated for any other speeds are set at 55 mph. In the fall, MnDOT raised speed limits on three state highways.
Westrom said in an e-mail that the longer distances his constituents travel in rural Minnesota require higher speed limits. He added that roads are safer and cars are better in Minnesota than ever before.
Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said she didn’t support Westrom’s original plan last year. But she approves of the new plan that recognizes that roads need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“In the format that it ended up being, I support it, because it’s the approach that’s not a one-size-fits-all and to me, that’s about public safety,” Kent said.
It’s difficult to predict what kind of effect a 5-mph increase will have on Minnesota drivers, Buchen said. He said the department will use current road speeds, character and environment to determine whether the highways can handle higher speeds.
If all vehicles are traveling at the same speed, there may be less congestion and less conflict between slower-moving and faster-moving vehicles, Buchen said.
“Speed limits will be identified that we believe are safe and reasonable — therefore, within their confines,” Buchen said. “As long as drivers comply with posted speed limits, it shouldn’t have any impact on Minnesotans, but if they choose to exceed the speed limit as they do today, the consequences can be very dire.”
The Minnesota Trucking Association trusts MnDOT’s judgment of speed limits on roads, said President John Hausladen.
“We drive roads and we have opinions as truck drivers about what might be the best speed to travel, but those are only opinions,” Hausladen said. “We have to rely on the experts to tell us.”
Speed still a concern
Speeds remain a safety concern. In 2012, its most recent year of data, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that illegal or unsafe speed was the largest contributing human factor for single-vehicle crashes at 21.6 percent. For multivehicle crashes, it was the fourth-largest contributing human factor.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who is chairman of the Senate’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee, opposed the amendment, and said he thinks accidents will worsen because of increased speed limits.
Buchen said that historically, one in four traffic deaths has been speed-related.
The Insurance Institute found that when speed limits are raised, the risk of crashes increases, said spokeswoman Kristin Nevels. Additionally, she said, people will often drive above the posted speed limits, which adds another risk.
“Unfortunately, when going at a higher speed, you’re more likely to have a fatality in that crash,” Nevels said, “because, basically, the laws of physics don’t change.”