RALEIGH — A drive to raise North Carolina’s top speed limit to 75 mph moved ahead Tuesday after a House committee recommended a Senate bill despite warnings by legislators that higher speeds will mean more casualties.
The House Transportation Committee agreed to the bill approved in the Senate in April that allows the Department of Transportation to set limits higher than the current 70 mph cap for some interstates and other limited-access highways if traffic and engineering allow it.
The bill doesn’t identify which roads could see higher limits, but committee members discussed straight, rural stretches of Interstate 40 in eastern North Carolina as a possibility. The law would continue to require DOT to declare any speed limit “reasonable and safe.”
“This is a DOT decision,” Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, the bill’s chief sponsor, told the committee before the vote on the bill, which is scheduled for debate today on the House floor. “It simply authorizes them to allow speeds up to 75 mph on appropriate roads.”
Several committee members questioned the move, saying that motorists are already traveling above the 70 mph limit — sometimes doing 80 — and a higher limit will just encourage them to go faster, leading to more collisions.
“I truly believe that at least one person will die because of this bill that might ordinarily not have died,” said Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson. “I cannot see the reason for this.”
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said there’s an “unwritten rule” today that a motorist can set the cruise control at 78 mph or so in a 70 mph zone and won’t be cited for a ticket. With a 75 mph limit, Dollar said he’s worried a driver will set the speed closer to 85.
“I think we’re going down a dangerous road,” he said.
Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, who helped shepherd the Senate bill, said current state law would remain in place to discourage excessive speeds. The Division of Motor Vehicles suspends someone’s license for 30 days if the driver is convicted of excessive speeding for driving above 80 mph, or going more than 15 mph over the speed limit while also traveling above 55 mph.
Iler, who drives I-40 every week, said commonsense tells him one reason for the higher speeds is that many drivers already are traveling above 70. Hunt said previously he wanted to give motorists the ability to drive a little faster on uncongested roads without having to worry about getting a ticket.
Fifteen mostly Western states currently have maximum speed limits of 75 mph while another state — Texas — allows speeds of up to 85 mph, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In Maine, the only East Coast state with a 75 mph limit, only one isolated interstate approaching the Canadian border now carries that posted speed.
The state Department of Transportation hasn’t publicly given an opinion on the bill. Agency liaison Jason Soper told the committee “there are roads that are engineered that can handle that speed.” Gov. Pat McCrory would be asked to sign any bill into law.
Other highways that are less traveled or less populated include U.S. Highway 64 near to the Outer Banks.
AAA Carolinas motor club is also opposed to the higher limit. “Higher speed limits will generate more traffic fatalities when collisions occur,” spokesman Tom Crosby said.
Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, a Transportation Committee co-chairman, said he was prepared to delay a vote until a later date. That’s when Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland and the House Rules Committee chairman, offered a motion to vote Tuesday. It was passed on a voice vote.