More 80 mph zones coming to Utah freeways

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 1:25 p.m. MDT

Motorists drive along an 80 mph section of I-15 south of Nephi on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The speed limit could zoom up to 80 mph on more sections of Utah freeways under a proposal that's expected to be introduced in the 2013 Legislature.

The plan gained speed after traffic data showed no dramatic increases in speeding or crashes in the 80 mph zones in place in central and southern Utah.

Members of the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to support expanding the number of freeway sections to give drivers a quicker trip through the state.

The vote came after the committee was told the Utah Department of Transportation may make the higher speed limit permanent on two sections of I-15, between Mills Junction and Scipio, and between Fillmore and Cove Fort.

The department will continue to study the impact of the higher limit on two other sections of I-15 south of the I-70 junction through 2014.

State law limits vehicle speed to 75 mph, or 65 mph in urban areas. But Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, sponsored legislation in 2008 initiating a study of the impact of higher speed limits along a limited portion of I-15.

Dunnigan said he's drafting a bill for next session that allows UDOT to test the 80 mph limit on portions of I-80 to Wendover, as well as sections of both I-15 and I-84 in northern Utah.

He told the committee that when he first proposed boosting the speed limit, concerns were raised that drivers would "think they were flying back to the future" and accelerate to up to 100 mph.

"That didn't happen," Dunnigan said. "More people became compliant."

UDOT deputy director Carlos Braceras cited the results of three years of data collection that found driver speed climbed from an average of 83 mph to 85 mph without any speed-related fatalities.

The department's data also shows that the number of nonfatal crashes has dropped along the two sections of I-15 where a permanent speed limit of 80 mph is recommended. 

Only a single serious injury crash was reported from 2009 to 2011 between Fillmore and Cove Fort, but it was not related to speed, according to UDOT. There was one speed-related serious injury crash along I-15 between Mills Junction and Scipio. 

Braceras said the areas for the first test were selected from the stretch of I-15 between Nephi and Cedar City designated in the original legislation based on whether the roads were relatively flat and straight, as well as free of past speed-related fatalities. 

Dunnigan said he'd also like to see a higher speed limit tested along other sections in that corridor, including closer to Nephi, in addition to the new study areas he intends to introduce next session. 

"There's still a lot of roadway that we are not testing that is still at 75 mph," Dunnigan said. "I think that there are a number of areas in Utah that probably could accommodate 80 mph. And there are some that would not."

He ruled out ever calling for a statewide speed limit of 80 mph, citing the need for slower speed limits along freeway stretches that are mountainous or curvy, as well as those that have a history of accidents.

"I don't want people to die or get hurt. But the thing we have to realize is, doing this doesn't increase traveling speed very much," Dunnigan said. "People kind of have their own built-in speed limit."

He said drivers have a comfort level, and even if the speed limit is increased, some won't hit the gas pedal any harder.

"But many people, most people actually, are already traveling 80," Dunnigan said. "So we're simply making legal what the majority of people do."

Contributing: Pat Reavy

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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