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75-MPH Limit Still Awaits Green Light on Arkansas Highways

3 min read

The state’s lead feet (lead foots?) likely rejoiced when the Arkansas Legislature passed a law allowing the State Highway Commission to raise the highway speed limit to 75 mph.

I understand the desire to drive faster on the interstate. I think the state would be better served by more drivers paying attention to the “Slower Traffic Keep Right” requirement than any speed limit increase, but that’s just me.

Act 1097 went into effect Aug. 1, but the actual raising of any speed limits will have to wait until the Department of Transportation and its engineers complete an updated traffic study. Those looking forward to (legally) punching the gas heavier will have to wait a while longer, and there is no guarantee the limits will be raised anyway.

“We started getting emails from people, ‘When is this going to happen so I can drive faster?’” said Danny Straessle, the public affairs officer for the Department of Transportation in Little Rock. “What we are stressing to people is what is posted out on the highway is the law of the land. Until that sign changes you may not drive a higher speed.”

Straessle said the law gives the State Highway Commission the authority to raise the speed limit, but it’s not a mandate. The act, which was sponsored by state Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, was very popular in the Legislature, passing the House by a vote of 92-1 and the Senate by a vote of 34-0.

Straessle said the speed study should be completed by the end of the summer.

“We’ll see if it’s a good idea and where it is a good idea,” Straessle said.

Arkansas is not leading the nation here. Eighteen other states have speed limits of 75 or more, and Texas has a stretch of rural highway where the limit is 85. Almost all of the faster states are west of Arkansas, and studies have shown that Western drivers generally drive faster than the rest of the country. That’s not necessarily a personality trait, but a reflection that there are a lot of wide-open, desolate stretches of road, as anyone who has ever driven across Kansas can surely attest.

Arkansas, with more than 16,000 miles of highway, is not comparable. I routinely drive some open stretches, for example between Alma and Russellville, but while that part of Interstate 40 traverses no significant population areas — no offense to the fine towns of Ozark and Clarksville — it does go through some significant twists and turns.

“Think about going through Ozark and the curves and there is a hill over there where the rest area is,” Straessle said. “The geometry changes pretty quick.”

Eastbound on I-40, near the Ozark rest area.

Straessle said the speed limit decision is serious. It stands to reason that accidents that happen at higher speeds can be deadlier.

It’s one of the reasons the state is so gung-ho to put more traffic circles in, because they force drivers to slow down while approaching intersections.

“Just because adjacent states have a higher speed limit does not mean it is a good idea for Arkansas,” Straessle said. “The states that do have the higher speed limits, 75 and 80 in some cases, those are extremely special and extenuating circumstances that enable those speeds to be attained.”

Another point that may slow down drivers’ excitement is that the places where the speed limit could be raised are probably not the areas where drivers would most like to go faster. Interstate 40 from North Little Rock to Memphis could be reclassified without a speed limit and it wouldn’t matter because there is so much traffic, truck and otherwise, that determines how fast people can go.

An increased speed limit probably won’t matter to the majority of the trucks on the road because trucking companies have pretty set standards about fuel efficiencies and safety.

“It’s a huge decision,” Straessle said. “If we bump up the speed limit to 75, we know people are going to go 80 and 85. Right now the speed limit is 70 so we know they are at least going 75 or 80.”

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