Chatter about whether the blue signs denoting Interstate 80 will also double as speed limit signs has dominated discussion about a far-reaching roads bill introduced before the Legislature.

Gretna Sen. John Murante introduced LB1009, which would increase the speed limit on most highways and designate a new class of two-lane highways with passing lanes. Gov. Pete Ricketts has already indicated he’ll sign it into law if it passes the Legislature.

Before Nebraskans get carried away, the legislation doesn’t immediately create some kind of I-80 autobahn. It merely prescribes an increase up to 80 mph outside cities only “as authorized by the Department of Transportation based on an engineering and traffic investigation.”

If Nebraska’s lone interstate is deemed by experts as being able to handle that speed of traffic, then, by all means, it should. Furthermore, more passing lanes on two-lane highways – as seen between Wahoo and David City on Nebraska 92, for instance – would be greatly welcomed in rural areas, where farm implements and large trucks can snarl traffic.

To date, opposition to this bill is centered on the safety of interstate drivers, an absolutely valid concern. One of the most frequently cited studies is by the Insurance Institute in Highway Safety, which found 5 mph increases in highway speed limits lead to more crash deaths than such hikes on city streets.

Interstates, however, have by far the lowest number of fatal crashes of any type of street, as annual reports by the Nebraska Department of Highway Safety note. Local roads, which have far lower speed limits, are the site of significantly more fatal crashes every year.

In what’s admittedly a small sample size, the results have been inconclusive in Nebraska’s bordering states, after Wyoming (July 2014) and South Dakota (April 2015) increased their maximum interstate speed limit in rural areas to 80 mph.

Wyoming saw more fatalities on its three interstates, precipitated by a spike of 34 in 2016. South Dakota, however, has seen a decline in interstate crash deaths from 25 in 2015 to 12 and 14 in the following two years. There were more deaths on its rural interstates, most of which have the 80 mph speed limit, in 2015 (19) than 2016 and 2017 (16) combined.

Part of the decline seen in South Dakota is likely attributed to increased speed enforcement along its two interstates, as its state patrol superintendent vowed strict enforcement of 80 mph speeds.

When speed limits went up, so, too, did the number of tickets issued on the highways. Our northern neighbor’s crackdown, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported, especially hit drivers clocked at less than 5 mph above the limit.

Nebraska should take notice. If the study confirms the interstate is capable of handling faster speeds, a boost in the state patrol’s presence could help mitigate any safety concerns that materialize.

— Journal Star, Jan 20, 2018

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