Increasing Arkansas' Speed Limit Up for Debate

Increasing Arkansas' Speed Limit Up for Debate
Though it now has the legal ability to raise speed limits, the Arkansas Department of Transportation won't be replacing its 70 MPH signs with ones that read 75 MPH until it hears from the public and the State Highway Commission. (Arkansas Department of Transportation)

Arkansans have more than a month to tell the state’s Department of Transportation what they think of increasing the highway speed limit.

Raising the speed limits on state highways became a possibility when the state Legislature passed Act 1097, which went into effect Aug. 1. The law gave the State Highway Commission the authority to raise the limits but, as ArDOT spokesman Danny Straessle said two months ago, it’s not a mandate.

At least one commission member, Philip Taldo of Springdale, is against increasing the speed limit. He was quoted at length in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and later followed with a social media post that he was opposed to the higher limits as long as texting while driving was still a problem.

The Transportation Department completed a speed study of Arkansas’ freeways and highways to determine the feasibility of raising the speed limits. The department posted its draft of the 2017 Speed Limit Review on its website.

The draft was presented to the State Highway Commission on Oct. 18 and left open for review and public comments until Dec. 13. Straessle, two months ago, said the Speed Limit Review would show whether raising the speed limits was a good idea and if so, where it would be a good idea.

The main question of an increased speed limit, of course, is how dangerous it would be for motorists. The review showed that fatalities on rural interstates increased by 9.4 percent after the speed limit was raised from 65 mph to 70 mph.

Not to get bogged down with boring minutiae, but the standard divisions of roads in ArDOT’s purview are rural freeways (think interstate with few interchanges), urban freeways (interstate with many interchanges), rural multilane highways and other rural highways.

The review said that after the initial bump in fatalities in 1996, the fatality rate peaked in 2000.

“While speed obviously has a significant impact on the fatal and serious injury crash rates, these figures show a declining trend for fatal and serious injury crash rates since 2000, even given the steady increase in the vehicle miles traveled over this period,” the report said. “It could be argued that technology has played a more significant role in the fluctuation of the rates than the posted speed limit. For example, continued improvements in vehicle safety design, airbags, better tires, and the more recent development of collision avoidance systems, has contributed to the declines, whereas the explosion of the use of smartphones and texting has contributed to the increases.”

The executive summary of the review stated that, after investigation, the department recommended that speed limits be raised on three of the four highway divisions of the state. ArDOT recommended that for rural freeways the speed limit be raised to 75 mph from its current 70.

ArDOT also recommended that urban freeways be given a standard 65 mph limit, up from their current 60. The department recommended raising the rural multilane limit to 65 from its current range of between 55 and 65 — and keeping all other rural highways at 55 mph.

The review showed that 85 percent of motorists drove 71 mph or slower on rural interstates and 59 mph on urban interstates.

Doug Voss is an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and also a member of the board of directors of the Arkansas Trucking Association. He thinks raising the speed limit is a bad idea because it will highlight the dangerous speed difference between cars and trucks, which are usually restricted by their companies as to how fast they can go.

“I do not believe increasing the speed limit is in the best interest of safety,” Voss said. “Raising the speed limit will create greater speed differential between trucks and cars, which is a major precursor to safety incidents. It’s safer when everyone travels at the same speed.”

Of course, no one travels at the same speed. The truth of driving on highways is the person in front of you is going too slow and the person behind you is going too fast; it’s just human nature to think that way.