Minnesota motorists will soon be able to press a little harder on the gas on hundreds of miles of two-lane highways — legally.

Speed limits will rise from 55 to 60 mph as soon as the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) can get new signs up along 340 miles of state and federal highways, including long segments of Hwys. 55, 23 and 212.

With the change, Minnesota joins a national push to boost speed limits welcomed by many drivers but watched nervously by public safety officials.

“It’s happening all around the country,” said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “There is no question that higher speeds get people to their destinations faster, but it comes at a cost, and that cost is safety, with more crashes and more severe crashes.”

The changes come in response to a four-year study of speed limits ordered by the state Legislature. This year, MnDOT will look at 1,500 miles of highways and determine which meet criteria for raising speeds. By 2018, the agency will have looked at the entire 7,000 miles of highways.

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, pushed for the review. He said his constituents have supported higher speed limits in e-mails and town meetings.

“Rural Minnesota families have lots of miles to travel — whether it is for jobs, shopping, or visiting friends and family,” Westrom said Friday in a statement. “Furthermore, this speed limit closer aligns with the speed the average driver is already going on these roads.”

Now it’s up to drivers, he said.

“No matter what the speed limit is, drivers need to continue to practice safe and defensive driving,” he said. “Safety comes first and starts with each individual driver!”

Since 2011, speed limits have increased on stretches of road in Texas, Ohio, New Hampshire, Maine, Kansas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana and Illinois. Idaho, Utah, Kentucky and Wyoming can increase speed limits based on engineering studies, according to the Insurance Institute. A 41-mile toll road in Texas is the nation’s fastest road with an 85 mph speed limit.

‘It’s alarming and troubling’

Safety concerns are rising along with speeds.

A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health attributed 12,545 deaths to increases in speed limits between 1995 and 2005.

Two-lane highways, lacking medians and other safety features of wider roads, are already hazardous, said Kara Macek, director of communications for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents the nation’s state highway safety offices.

“It’s alarming and troubling, and not the direction we want to be going,” she said.

“People don’t drive the existing speed limit. Now they will automatically add that to the 10 miles buffer, and that is what we are afraid of.”

Rader said single-vehicle crashes are common on two-lane highways and that higher speeds magnify the problem.

“Lawmakers are raising speeds but not repealing the laws of physics,” he said. “They are always in play.”

He said the number of crashes and fatalities resulting from higher speed limits could be mitigated if states vigorously enforced speed limit laws.

“We trust MnDOT with their engineering judgment related to roadway decisions and design,” said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol. “We will enforce the posted speed limits, as determined by law. We remain steadfast in our desire for motorists to obey the speed limit.”

MnDOT studied crash data

The legislative mandate required MnDOT to study all two-lane highways that have a speed limit of 55 mph over a five-year period. In 2014, the department evaluated 570 miles of highway and deemed 340 miles of them appropriate for higher speed, according to a report submitted to the Legislature in January. (http://tinyurl.com/nldwmfo)

MnDOT looked at several attributes of each highway, including past crash rates, highway shoulder widths and access points and the speed drivers are currently going.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the current speed limits were a response to high gas prices in the 1970s, and he doesn’t see any reason not to raise them back to the speed limits they carried earlier.

“I don’t even know why they’re studying them. I don’t know why they don’t just raise them all back up to 65, because that’s what they were for many, many years.

“They were 65 miles an hour when we were kids, and we didn’t have seat belts or air bags,” he said. “To raise them up to 60 now is nothing other than common sense.”