ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Posted speeds just a guideline in Iowa?

90 percent of drivers on rural interstates exceed 65 mph

MITCHELLVILLE, Iowa – Kelly Steele is a Cedar Rapids lawyer who admits regularly breaking the law.

Steele, who is also a stockbroker, is among the large majority of motorists who drive faster than the 65 mph speed limit on Iowa's rural interstate highways. But, like some key state leaders, he opposes tampering with Iowa's speed law. He said he fears an increase to 70 or 75 mph will cause other motorists to drive even faster and lead to more traffic deaths.

"I guess I know my own limits, but I probably should be a little more prudent," said Steele, who stopped at the Mitchellville rest area on Interstate Highway 80 while returning from a business trip to Omaha. He said he was driving about 72 mph, although he stays closer to the speed limit while traveling with his two daughters in the family's van.

Iowa Department of Transportation reports show motorists aren't slowing down on the state's roads. Between last July and September, 90 percent of drivers on four-lane rural interstate highways exceeded the 65 mph limit. Nineteen percent drove faster than 75 mph, and 4 percent exceeded 80 mph. On two-lane state and county highways posted at 55 mph, 82 percent of drivers violated the limit, while 16 percent drove faster than 70 mph.

Mark Wandro, the state transportation agency director, said he hopes the Legislature doesn't raise speed limits this year, even though most drivers aren't complying with the law. He is supported by Gov. Tom Vilsack, who points out that Iowans pay some of the lowest auto insurance rates in the nation.

"It's going to cause more property damage and personal injury" if speed limits are raised, Wandro said.

An example of potential problems with higher speeds can be found on Nebraska's stretch of I-80 between Lincoln and Omaha, where motorists routinely exceed the 75 mph speed limit, Wandro said. He recalled an incident in which he, his wife and their two children narrowly escaped a potentially serious crash while traveling on the route.

"They run 80 to 85 miles per hour there. It's crazy," Wandro said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va., issued a national report in November that found traffic deaths increasing in states where speeds have been raised to 70 or 75 mph. The study also said motorists seem increasingly willing to go much faster than speed limits. There also is little or no stigma associated with violating speed laws.

One notorious speed-law violator is former U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow of South Dakota, who collected 12 speeding tickets during a four-year period in the 1990s, the institute said. When Janklow got off with a warning instead of a ticket for speeding in June 2003, he thanked the "polite gentleman who cut me a little slack."

Two months later, Janklow, 64, a four-term Republican governor, killed a motorcyclist at a rural intersection near the politician's hometown of Flandreau. He resigned his congressional post in disgrace and was sentenced last week to 100 days in jail after being found guilty of speeding, running a stop sign and second-degree manslaughter. He has been banned from driving for three years.

Iowa had a total of 441 traffic deaths in 2003, up from 404 a year earlier, preliminary reports show. In 2000, the most recent year for which a full analysis of crashes has been completed, excessive speed and driving too fast for conditions were cited as contributing factors in 46 of Iowa's 394 fatal crashes.

Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants, a Sioux City Republican, said drivers in western Iowa want lawmakers to raise the speed limit to 70 or 75 mph because they are accustomed to higher posted speeds in neighboring states. Iowa and Oregon are the only two continental states west of the Mississippi River with speed limits of 65 mph.

One way to resolve the issue, Rants said, would be to raise Iowa's speed limit while raising traffic fines.

"Let's be honest about it. If you are not going to pull people over for doing 70, then we ought to admit it that this is what the speed limit ought to be," Rants said.

The most recent Iowa Poll question on the speed limit was published in February 2003. It showed 59 percent of Iowans supported a higher speed limit. That was up from 46 percent who favored higher speeds in a February 1998 Iowa Poll.

Judy Rohwedder of Muscatine, who works for a program that trains substance abuse treatment counselors, contends it's time for Iowa to allow motorists to legally drive faster.

"I travel quite a bit, like to South Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska, and all of those have higher speed limits," said Rohwedder, who was heading to Des Moines on I-80 last week. "You get to Iowa, you have to slow down. But most people don't go 65 anyway."

A report issued in 2002 by an Iowa task force on speed limits found that traffic deaths on rural interstate highways increased in four adjacent Midwest states where legal speeds were raised to 70 or 75 mph. Nebraska had the greatest increase. Rural interstate fatalities there showed an increase of 58 percent when average annual fatalities from 1996 to 2001 were compared with average annual deaths from 1993 to 1995. The other states were Missouri, South Dakota and Minnesota. Iowa traffic deaths dropped over the same period.

Eric Skrum, communications director for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, contends such studies are suspect. He said he believes the insurance industry and government agencies want to hold down speed limits to unreasonably low levels so police officers can write more speeding tickets. That way insurance companies can raise their rates for motorists and governments can generate more revenue from traffic fines, he said.

"They say that this is in the interests of public safety, but all you have to do is follow that money trail," Skrum said.

If speed limits are raised in Iowa, people will drive faster, but there will be more compliance with the law, less tailgating and less weaving in and out of traffic, Skrum maintained. "You will have a majority of traffic flowing at the same speed, and you are going to have fewer accidents," he said.

When Americans' increased use of automobiles is considered, highway fatality rates have dropped nationwide since Congress voted in 1996 to permit each state to set its own speed limits, Skrum said. During 2002, the national fatality rate was 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from 1.7 in 1996, federal records show.

Over the past 10 years, Iowa's traffic fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has declined from 2.15 to 1.33, a drop of nearly 39 percent, and the lowest rate ever recorded, said Robert Thompson of the Iowa Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau.

Whether the Iowa Legislature takes a serious look at raising the speed limit this session remains uncertain, said Senate Majority Leader Stewart Iverson, a Dows Republican. A bill allowing motorists to drive at 70 mph cleared a House committee last year but it died without further action.

"We have a lot of new folks, so there could be some talk about it. But how far it goes I am not sure," Iverson said.