Government & Politics

Pedal to the metal: Should Kansas allow 80 mph speed limits?

Traffic flows on Interstate 135 between Wichita and Newton, where the speed limit is 75 mph. Bills in committee would allow the Kansas Department of Transportation to raise the state’s highest speed limit on separated, multiple-lane highways from 75 to 80 mph.
Traffic flows on Interstate 135 between Wichita and Newton, where the speed limit is 75 mph. Bills in committee would allow the Kansas Department of Transportation to raise the state’s highest speed limit on separated, multiple-lane highways from 75 to 80 mph. The Wichita Eagle

Travelers could pass through some rural stretches of Kansas a little faster, under legislation being considered in Topeka.

Bills in committee would allow the Kansas Department of Transportation to raise the state’s highest speed limit on separated, multiple-lane highways from 75 to 80 mph.

Lawmakers could decide this week if one of the bills will go to the full Kansas House.

The Transportation Department is opposed to the bill. It’s unclear where the department would raise the speed limit if the law were to change.

“We would look at each highway that qualifies to be sure moving the speed limit up to 80 miles per hour is safe and prudent,” said Steve Swartz, the department’s public affairs chief.

The new limit would bring Kansas in line with several sparsely populated, largely rural Western states.

Six states have a maximum speed limit of 80 mph: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Texas allows drivers to go up to 85 mph.

Supporters, such as Rep. John Bradford, a Lansing Republican, say the higher speed limit would help make regulations match reality, as many travelers drive faster in open country anyway.

“Most of the traffic clearly flows at around 85 miles an hour,” Bradford said by phone recently, as he happened to be driving on Interstate 70 toward Kansas City. “I would tell you right now I’m sitting here driving 85 and I’m just flowing along naturally with traffic.”

“Just don’t tell the Highway Patrol,” he added, laughing.

That could be because I-70’s current speed limit is 75 mph.

The Highway Patrol opposes the bill, as does an organization of Kansas truckers.

A higher speed limit could lead to more accidents and make hundreds of miles of interstate more dangerous, opponents say.

“The severity of those accidents increases significantly with the more speed that you add into it,” said Lt. Adam Winters, a Kansas Highway Patrol public information officer.

HB 2450 and 2643

The Legislature raised the maximum speed limit to 75 mph in 2011.

The Transportation Department then set the new 75 mph speed limit for 807 miles of roadway. More than 1,000 miles were initially eligible for the higher speed limit.

If lawmakers pass HB 2450, the department would have discretion over which of those highways could have a speed limit of 80 mph.

Some eligible highways might not see a higher speed limit. For instance, in 2011, the department chose to not raise the speed limit on Kansas 10 because of its crash history.

Under HB 2450, on highways with the higher limits, drivers pulled over going up to 90 mph would not be cited for a moving traffic violation. It would also not be reported to the Division of Vehicles.

HB 2450 had its first hearing Feb. 9. It has not been scheduled for a vote in the House Transportation Committee.

Committee chairman Rep. Richard Proehl, a Parsons Republican, said that will be decided this week after the committee hears about a second speed limit bill.

That bill, HB 2643, would give Transportation Secretary Mike King more authority to adjust speed limits, including increasing existing rural speed limits by 5 mph. A hearing is set for Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of highways where the speed limit could be raised without any danger or concern,” said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican, who introduced HB 2643 last week.

‘Free-flowing traffic’

Supporters and opponents of a higher speed limit both say safety is on their side.

Bradford said traffic on these highways routinely travels above the posted 75 mph limit. And he said the posted limit should reflect the speed most drivers actually go.

“If you’re driving the posted speed limit of 75 and you’re in the left lane, you become a hazard to free-flowing traffic,” Bradford said. “Because people going 80 and 85, they want to get around you.”

Bradford talked about his father being one of those drivers.

“My dad, years ago back in Indiana, would go, ‘I pay my taxes. I’m going to drive the speed limit. And I’m going to drive in any lane I want,’ ” he said. “And that used to irritate me so bad. … It would force people to go around on the right. And passing on the right-hand side is dangerous.”

Concerns about speeding in poor conditions are overblown, Bradford said.

“Good drivers adjust their speed to the weather and driving conditions of the highway, whether it’s snow or ice,” Bradford said. “Just because you can drive a certain speed doesn’t mean you should.”

Kleeb introduced the 75 mph speed limit bill in 2011. He said it’s time for an 80 mph limit in some parts of Kansas.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Why aren’t you going to 80?’ particularly past Manhattan (on I-70),” Kleeb said.

‘Pushing cars … to 90’

Officials at the state Transportation Department and Highway Patrol, who would have to live with higher speed limits every day, disagree.

“The public’s perception of the speed limit is that they have a 5 or 10 mile an hour leeway that they could drive where they won’t be stopped or cited. And that is not a true statement,” said Winters of the Highway Patrol. “However, they’re still going to want to do that. So now you’re pushing cars up to 85 to 90 miles an hour on the interstates.”

Winters said people’s reaction times aren’t fast enough for evasive maneuvers at that speed on certain roads.

“The turnpike, when you do get into the Flint Hills between Wichita and Emporia, does get rather windy as well as hilly,” he said.

Winters also said drivers would not save that much time, even on the long trip from the Colorado state line to Topeka.

“You’re only saving about 15 minutes when you increase that speed limit to 80 miles an hour,” Winters said.

The Transportation Department was neutral on raising the speed limit in 2011.

But the department now says that raising the speed limit to 75 mph increased highway fatalities.

In written testimony, the department noted a 22 percent rise in traffic fatalities on roads with the higher limit through 2014, compared with the 3 1/2 years before the change. Meanwhile, fatalities in the rest of the state’s road system went down.

The department also noted that road construction and reconstruction costs would go up and that some highways could need better guardrails.

A representative of the Kansas trucking industry worries that the bill’s language about moving violations would raise the “speed limit buffer” to 90 mph.

“This just further increases the closing rate on a truck by an automobile,” said Tom Whitaker, executive director of the Kansas Motor Carriers Association. “Our fear is it would increase rear-end accidents.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

Highways where speed limit could be raised

▪ Kansas Turnpike from Wyandotte County to the Oklahoma border, past Wichita

▪ Interstate 35 from Johnson County to Emporia

▪ Interstate 70 from Shawnee County, just west of Topeka, to the Colorado border

▪ U.S. 69 from Johnson County south to U.S. 54 near Fort Scott

▪ Interstate 135 from north of Wichita to Salina

▪ U.S. 81 from Salina north to Minneapolis, Kan.