Raising the speed limit to 70 mph on most urban interstates along Utah’s Wasatch Front hasn’t led to a major increase in average speed by motorists as some feared it would, according to new data released by the Utah Department of Transportation.
That’s because most highway motorists in the state’s urban core drove about 70 mph or faster when the speed limit was 65, and their speed stayed about the same when the legal speed went up in December, transportation officials said.
“Most people drive at the speeds where they are comfortable,” said John Gleason, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation to the Salt Lake Tribune.
The data on average motorist speeds between January and March was released on Tuesday. It shows that while average speeds went up by about 2 mph in some sections of highway, the averages dropped by the same amount in other areas. That data is in line with authorities’ expectations, Gleason said.
Insurance groups and the Utah Highway Patrol said the new speed limit would lead to faster, more unsafe driving, though state police later scaled back their objections.
Highway deaths did increase this year, but transportation officials say that’s not because of the new speed limits: The majority of the deaths happened in areas with a 40 mph speed limits, said Jason Davis, chief of operations for the agency.
In more than half of the cases, he said, people weren’t wearing seatbelts. A newly strengthened seatbelt law went into effect Tuesday, giving police the authority to pull people over for not wearing a seatbelt. Officers could previously cite people who didn’t buckle up, but only after they were stopped for another offense.
UDOT officials say they released the speed data earlier than usual because of the attention drawn by the change. Utah’s relatively mild winter weather also means motorists were probably driving faster than average for the season, more like they will during other parts of the year.
The speed limit increased in December, after changes to state law allowed the transportation department to raise limits up to 80 mph when it determines it’s safe to do so. The department decided to raise the speed limit after studying motorists’ existing speeds, the number of accidents and the design of the road.
The change to a 70 mph speed limit came because roads are safer when more cars are going the same speed, Gleason said.
“Someone going much slower or faster than the majority of drivers is dangerous,” he said. “We want to make the posted speed limit realistic.”
The agency found similar results when it increased freeway speeds from 65 mph to 80 mph in rural areas in 2013. Average speeds there increased by a mile or two per hour, Gleason said.
Utah is one of four states that allow speeds of 80 mph or more. The others are Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming.
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