Lawmakers advance bill to boost speed limits with amendment to remove I-80’s eligibility

Drivers make their way on I-80 as seen from South 36th Street on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017 in Omaha, Neb. JULIA NAGY/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers gave swift first-round approval Wednesday to a bill allowing a 5 mph boost in speed limits on state highways and expressways, but not Interstate 80.

Senators voted 35-2 to advance Legislative Bill 1009 to the second of three rounds of debate. As amended, it would allow the Department of Transportation to increase speed limits on two-lane highways from 60 mph to 65 mph and on four-lane expressways from 70 mph to 75 mph.

Lawmakers adopted an amendment removing I-80 from roadways eligible for a speed limit increase in response to opposition from the trucking industry. Representatives from trucking firms said raising the limit on I-80 from 75 mph to 80 mph would lead to an unsafe speed differential with semitrailer trucks, many of which are equipped with devices that hold their top speed to 68 mph.

“When that industry stands up and says increasing the speed limit is not a good idea, I think we should listen,” said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who offered the amendment.

Traffic safety advocates also testified against the bill at a public hearing, saying it would lead to more deaths and injury accidents in exchange for minimal time savings for drivers.

They pointed to long-term research by the insurance industry showing that fatalities increase by 4 percent on two-lane highways and 8 percent on Interstates and freeways for each 5 mph increase in the speed limit.

But officials with the Transportation Department testified that the faster speed limits would only be allowed on stretches of roads that can safely accommodate them.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. John Murante of Gretna, who supported the amendment to remove I-80 from the list of highways eligible for an increase.

The higher limits are supported by a common statistical method used by traffic engineers called the 85th percentile rule, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the Transportation Department.

Engineers start by monitoring the speed of traffic on a fixed point of a road under free-flowing conditions. The speed at or below which 85 percent of vehicles travel is considered the proper speed limit for the roadway.

Murante said Wednesday that keeping speeds below the 85th percentile speed does not encourage most drivers to slow down. The Transportation Department sets speed limits based on traffic volumes, road design and engineering considerations, and crash data, he added.

“I have heard from citizens all across Nebraska that they feel some of our speed limits are too slow,” he said. “However our laws must be grounded in fact, not feeling.”

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