While a new Arkansas law that took effect Tuesday authorizes speeds of up to 75 mph on some major highways, state highway officials said, "Not so fast."
Engineers are still studying road designs and traffic patterns to determine whether Arkansas should join 18 other states with speed limits at least that high, Department of Transportation spokesman Danny Straessle said Tuesday. It's possible that no part of the state's 16,432-mile highway system can handle that speed, and there's a chance that some speed limits will have to be lowered because of higher traffic counts.
"We have to take each of the highways individually, take into account the terrain, the volume of tractor-trailer traffic ... the population through which the highway is running, rural vs. non-rural," Straessle said. Results are expected at the end of the summer.
"We know folks exceed the speed limit, so what are people really going to drive?" Straessle asked. "If you get over 85 (mph) on some of these highways, that's really not a good idea."
The expectation that drivers will always exceed the speed limit led Rep. Andy Mayberry to vote against the increase when authorization came up for a final vote in the House this year.
"The reasoning behind it was, 'Everybody goes over the speed limit anyway, so let's go ahead and raise it,'" the Republican from Hensley said. "If everyone is going 75 now, aren't they just going to go 80 then?"
The bill passed the House 92-1 and the Senate 34-0, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson let the bill become law without his signature. Spokesman J.R. Davis said Tuesday the governor did not see the need for a higher speed limit.
"People always go 10 mph over the speed limit. He did not see a reason for it to be increased to 75 mph," Davis said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released data last year that it said showed an 8 percent increase in traffic fatalities for every 5 mph speed limit increase on interstate highways and other freeways. More than three dozen states, including Arkansas, have raised speed limits since the mid-1990s. The insurance industry-supported group blames the higher limits for an additional 33,000 people dying in traffic accidents in the two decades since.
"When you raise the speed limits, people drive faster and you see more serious crashes and you see more deaths," Chuck Farmer, the institute's vice president of research, said Tuesday. "I understand you are trying to allow people to get where they want to get faster, but there is a trade-off.
"Some people aren't going to make it. They are going to die."
Eighteen states allow motorists to drive at least 75 mph, while drivers in Montana, South Dakota, Utah and Washington can reach 80. Texas has authorized an 85 mph speed limit, according to the IIHS.
The U.S. adopted a 55 mph speed limit in the 1970s, seeking the greatest fuel efficiency during an energy crisis. Congress repealed the national speed limit in the 1990s and in the years since, 38 states have set speed limits at 70 mph or higher, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, which abut Arkansas, each have higher limits.
Straessle said the state could lower speed limits on Interstate 49 in fast-growing northwestern Arkansas and that a 75 mph limit might never be possible on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis, Tennessee, because of heavy tractor-trailer traffic.
"The law does not require this to happen. It just gives the Department of Transportation permission," he said. "Unless you see a sign that says you can go 75, you can't."
Speed limit signs in the state's stockpile Tuesday only went as high as 70 mph.