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Speed limits increasing on U.S. highways – along with safety concerns

Safety officials say rising speed limits in Utah and beyond will bring more, and more ghastly, fatal accidents

This eye-blink town along I-15 isn't much of a destination, really, despite its views of southern Utah's gleaming red-rock hills. But for tourists, truckers and other road warriors, it's a threshold to bigger thrills along the asphalt highway.

Heading north, near road marker 25 here, the speed limit shifts from 75 to 80 — all the way north to Provo, 250 miles distant. For countless wayfarers, the suggestion is clear: surrender to the impulse for velocity and kick up a little more dust, pedal toward the floor, along an undulating desert terrain that beckons swiftness.

Four decades after the slowpoke era of "Drive 55," when a national energy crisis slowed speed limits to a crawl, gas prices have leveled off and automobiles have become far more fuel-efficient. Such progress has prompted some motorists to zoom, while others resist the urge. "I go 5 miles over the limit," said St. George bartender Tony Bonny. "But as soon as I see that 80 sign, my foot gets just a little bit heavier."

U.S. speed limits are rising nationwide, especially in wide-open Western states, reflecting the more-harried lifestyles of a fast-paced nation. But many safety officials are scratching their heads over a perilous trend they say will lead to more — and more ghastly — fatalities. Each year, excessive speed contributes to one-third of highway deaths nationally.

"The research is clear and consistent on the safety consequences of raising speed limits," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Higher speed limits get people to their destinations faster, but there's always a cost: Ultimately, there will be more severe crashes and more deaths on those roads. At the end of the day, it's simple physics."

Thirteen states have increased speed limits since 2005 — including Georgia, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio — most of those topping out with limits of 70 or 75 mph, according to statistics from the highway safety group.

But in the West, officials have kicked things up a notch further: This year, Idaho and Wyoming raised their top speeds to 80 on some stretches of interstate. Legislators in Montana — which in 1995 dropped all speed limits until the state Supreme Court reversed the rule change three years later — is considering an 85 mph top speed to match areas in Texas as the nation's Mt. Olympus of speed limits.

For many, 5 mph doesn't seem like much, cutting only two hours from a cross-country trek at 80 mph instead of 75. Still, many state officials say they're not encouraging more speed — just adapting the limits to reflect speeds people already drive.

Highway safety experts blame the newest need for speed on what one calls "simple peer pressure."

"When your neighbor increases its speed to 80, there's pressure to do the same," said Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Assn. in Washington, D.C. "Motorists are giving in to the need to get everywhere quickly — especially out West, where it takes forever to get places. Today there's no such thing as getting your kicks on Route 66."

Utah officials say that since 2008, highway crashes have dropped annually on stretches of rural Interstate 15 where they bumped the limit to 80. A 2009 study also suggested that drivers better complied with the new limit than they did with 75 mph, with a 20% drop in drivers exceeding the speed cap.

Last week, Utah went a step further: The state raised the speed limit from 65 to 70 on urban interstates around populated Salt Lake City. Highway officials say the high speed allowance prompts more regularity on the road, hastening even the slowest drivers.

"The idea is to provide consistency," said John Gleason, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. "We really don't think we're changing the speed that most people drive; we're changing the legal limit to reflect speeds they're already doing."

But national safety experts point to the folly of raising limits on roads shared by pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation. Officials applauded New York City's recent move to reduce the limit on city streets from 30 to 25 to curtail pedestrian deaths.

Said Rader: "About 10,000 Americans die every year in crashes that are related to speed, from going faster than the posted limit or faster than conditions allow. It's too many."

Many now revel in the new freedoms offered by faster highway speeds.

"The 80 mph speed limit is an antidote to those high airline ticket prices and nickel-and-dime onboard fees. The 80 mph speed limit is symbolic of my individuality and freedom," wrote editorial page editor Robert Ehlert in the Idaho Statesman. "This is the West. This is the way we roll."

Outside Leeds, at a gas station popular with travelers, long-distance trucker Jake Hansen stopped for coffee and a bathroom break. With the slightly higher speed limits, he wasn't in as much of a rush.

"It does make a difference — I can get ahead of schedule," said the 26-year-old, who was hauling a load of steel beams for an apartment building in Salt Lake City. "You get there faster; you unload faster."

But the U.S. trucking industry has cautioned against excessive speeds, calling for a 65 mph national limit, as well as electronically governed trucks that cannot exceed that limit. "Our guys are out there on the road every day," said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Assn. "We know speed increases risk and crash severity."

The Utah Highway Patrol has also spoken out against higher speeds. "We're not in favor of raising the speed limits because we're out there on the road scenes of fatal accidents," Sgt. Todd Royce, an agency spokesman, said. "We know what happens when you crash at those speeds."

On a recent weekday outside Leeds, Sgt. Jake Hicks sat in his 2014 white Dodge Charger, watching his radar machine blip as it captured the speeds of motorists descending Black Ridge mountain and its 2,000-foot elevation drop.

In the past he's clocked motorists topping 100 mph on this stretch of road that winds along softly banked curves though red rock and desert scrub. The high limit hasn't changed his job much. But he says many highway patrol officers here have lessened the cushion they will allow motorists to exceed the new 80 mph limit.

"I'm a rolling speed-limit sign," said the 38-year-old Marine Corps veteran. "No matter what speed people are going, they see me and they hit the brakes."

Not everybody. Once, in Salt Lake City, a motorist passed Hicks in the right lane, even though the officer was traveling the speed limit, lights flashing, en route to an accident scene. That guy got a get-out-of-jail-free card: Hicks didn't stop him because he had more pressing matters.

While covering Utah's southernmost 42 miles along I-15, Hicks stopped a motorist traveling well over 100 mph. The man said he'd just washed his car and was trying to let the wind dry it. "As I gave him the ticket, I told him, 'That's a pretty expensive car wash, mister.'"

Hicks spots a 1990s Buick with faded paint going 84. The driver hits the brakes, but the officer lights him up for a brief safety lecture.

Doug Griffin, a 39-year-old computer software worker, says he was hurrying to make a meeting in St. George. "But it didn't work out that way," he said. "All the people I passed just passed me as I waited here on the side of the road.

He added: "I guess there's no justice in going too fast."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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