Raising the speed limit even five miles on rural stretches of Florida’s roads could lead to more fatalities and injuries, according to a law enforcement official, consumer group spokesman and safety council official, who held a press conference Thursday to oppose a bill that would increase limits in certain areas.
“If this law passes and 100 more people die in Florida as a result of a higher speed limits, that would not surprise me,” said John Ulczycki, vice president of strategic initiatives for the National Safety Council.
Ulczycki was joined by Walter Dartland, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, and Wakulla County Sheriff Charlie Creel, who all want to block SB 392, which was proposed by Senators Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
The legislation, said Clemens, allows engineers at the Florida Department of Transportation to evaluate highways in rural areas, “basically where there are no population centers of more than 5,000 people,” to determine whether the speed limit could be increased by five miles per hour.
The proposed law, for instance could raise the speed limit from 70 to 75 miles per hour on interstates and other limited access highways. The measure, said Clemens, “bases speed limits on science rather than emotion. ... Traffic fatalities have reduced markedly since we did away with the national speed limit in the 90s.”
Clemens and Brandes say the law would better reflect the speed that motorists actually drive and that traveling with traffic is safer for motorists, while opponents say raising the speed limit would just cause motorists to drive faster.
“What we have seen across the country is when speed limits are raised, people will drive faster because they can,” Ulczycki said. “But they’re not just driving the speed limit they will continue to drive on average five to seven miles above the speed limit and so when you’re talking about raising the speed limit five miles an hour, you’re going to raise the entire average speed well above what that speed limit is.”
Echoing that sentiment, Dartland said the bill was a "bad" idea. "If the speed limit is raised, drivers will probably be “hitting over 80 and possibly 90 miles per hour. It seems to me we don’t want to have that risk.”
A press release from Brandeis office quotes John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association, stating that “since 1995, speed limits have steadily increased on highways to 70, 75 or more. During that period of time, the national highway fatality rate has fallen 36 percent. This is because free flowing traffic is safer.”
The bill's sponsors state that 17 other states have speed limits above 70 miles per hour.
There’s no argument that traffic fatalities have decreased in Florida. From 2007 to 2011 (the last year before reporting methods changed), the number of crashes in the state dropped from 256,206 to 227,998, a drop of 11 percent, according to numbers from the Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles. Fatalities during the same period dropped 25 percent, from 3,221 to 2,400.
Those on both sides of the issue stress there are many factors causing this drop, including better road design and construction and safety improvements in cars.
Creel added a human element to the numbers, describing the heartbreak of traffic fatalities. “I’ve seen what it does to families,” said the sheriff, who was a Florida Highway Patrol trooper for 30 years. “I’ve investigated crashes around Christmas time where there was a fatality and the car had Christmas presents in the back seat.”
Creel said there’s a need for more officers to crack down on speeders. “It’s hard to put a person out there or two people out there working one county when it’s 40 miles across that county on the Interstate. Two people’s not enough. You need more officers out there."
But Creel did say that the current interstate speed of 70 miles per hour “is a good number and we should leave it there instead of raising it.”