80 mph plan hits speed bump in Michigan House

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A state legislative package allowing speed limits to be raised as high as 80 miles per hour on certain highways hit a speed bump Wednesday as a preliminary estimate showed Michigan’s traffic deaths increased 10 percent in 2015.

The House is considering a bill that could allow for freeway speed limits of up to 80 mph.

The Republican-controlled Michigan House started, stopped and delayed voting on a package that would have allowed for speed limits of 75 or 80 miles per hour on rural freeways.

Sponsoring Rep. Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford, said he was short three to five votes on one of the main bills in the package, prompting motions to reconsider others that had already been approved.

“There’s a lot of moving parts here, and we’ll do a little better education before we bring it back,” said Jacobsen, who does not anticipate another vote this week. “I’ve been working on it for two-and-a-half years; I’m not giving up yet.”

Under the bills, the Michigan Department of Transportation and state police would conduct traffic and safety studies before raising any speed limits, which would be set to reflect the rate at which 85 percent of traffic was traveling on a given stretch of road.

While his legislation would allow for freeway limits of up to 80 mph, Jacobsen said experts would be unlikely to approve those speeds for existing freeways, which were engineered to accommodate lower speeds. Still, he said he is willing to drop the 80 mph option to win more support for the 75 mph limit.

“I had a number of people who said 80 (mph) is ridiculous, you can’t do that,” Jacobsen said. “I think it seems like that might be something to just take out right away that gets us the extra handful of votes we need, but we’ll see.”

The package would also allow speed limits of 60 or 65 mph on some trunk line highways, up from the current limit of 55 mph.

Jacobsen and other supporters say drivers will travel at speeds they feel safe and, in many parts of the state, drivers are already traveling faster than current limits. The proposal would allow experts to set speed limits based on science, not emotion, they argue.

But critics say higher speed limits would lead to more serious crashes. Anonymous printouts placed on lawmakers’ desks prior to Wednesday’s vote included images of a pothole, an 80 mph traffic sign and an overturned, wrecked car. It was not clear who distributed the flier.

State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, also circulated a letter from AAA Michigan President Steve Wagner, who urged legislators to vote against the speed limits package.

“Given the current conditions of our roadways, we question the safety of traveling the current speed limit let alone driving at increased speeds,” read the AAA letter. “We are also concerned about the negative effect a speed limit increase will have on newly licensed drivers and senior drivers.”

State Rep. Marilyn Lane, D-Fraser, echoed some of those concerns in a floor speech.

“I still wonder who’s really pushing on these bills,” she said. “Is it the senior citizens that are calling you saying they want to drive faster? Is it the parents of young drivers?”

The National Safety Council said Wednesday its preliminary estimates for 2015 found that there was an 8 percent rise in the number of people killed last year on U.S. roads, making it the deadliest driving year since 2008. Michigan outpaced the national increase with a 10 percent hike in people killed from 893 in 2014 to 982 in 2015.

Advocates for higher speed limits usually point to the decline in U.S. fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles driven during the past century, saying it is a more accurate statistic because it reflects that more people are driving farther on American roads and freeways. This fatality rate dropped from 24 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles in 1921 to 1.07 deaths in 2014.

But the preliminary estimate of 1.22 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2015 was a bump up from 2014.

Jacobsen began working on the legislation more than two years ago, but he wasn’t looking to increase rates. Instead, he was interested in providing a way for his Oakland County community to lower speed limits on gravel roads.

The House package would do just that, setting 45 mph speed limits on gravel roads in counties with more than 1 million residents but allowing municipalities to request a lower rate of 35 mph.

The legislation also seeks to update rules for school zone speeds. Limits could be reduced by up to 20 mph in the 30 minutes before or after school but could not go below 25 mph.

Jacobsen started exploring the idea of higher freeway speed limits after hearing from now-retired Michigan State Police officer Thad Peterson, commander of the traffic services section, who advocated for “speed limit corrections” to reflect actual driving patterns.

Majority Floor Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, said he hopes the House will reconsider the bills “sooner rather than later.”

“Hopefully, we’ll get there,” Nesbitt said. “I think it’s pretty common-sense legislation.”

It’s not clear which Michigan freeways and highways might qualify for the higher speed limits. A spokesman for the state transportation department said studies required by the proposed legislation have not been conducted.

Jacobsen, who travels each work day from Oxford to Lansing on Interstate 69, said most drivers on that freeway travel “free and clear” at 75 mph and does not think the state should make them “feel like a criminal” for doing so.

He’s not sure whether I-69 would qualify for a higher speed limit and anticipates most changes would occur in rural, northern parts of the state. Pressed for a hypothetical example, Jacobsen noted that U.S. 127 between St. Johns and Clare is fairly straight, has wide shoulders and a limited number of entrances and exits.

“It seems like a pretty reasonable spot to me,” Jacobsen said, “but we’ll leave that up to the experts to do the engineering and safety studies.”


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