Senate approves 80 mph on rural interstates;
rejects seat belt proposal
By Senta Scarborough
The Arizona Republic
Arizona state senators may be sending negative messages on
highway safety by clearing the way for 80-mph speeds on rural
interstates and rejecting a bill to allow police to pull over
drivers not wearing seat belts, activists say.
"I'm perplexed at the Legislature. They are essentially
saying 'no' to stronger seat belt laws and saying 'yes' to
driving faster," says Michael Frias, deputy director
of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
The speed limit legislation, approved in an 18-12 Senate
vote March 9, allows the Arizona Department of Transportation
to raise the speed limit to 80 from 75 mph on roads like Interstate
10 from Phoenix to Tucson. If enacted, it would be the nation's
highest speed limit.
But senators on Thursday voted 19-10 against a proposal aimed
at getting drivers to buckle up. It would have allowed police
to stop a driver solely for not wearing a belt. Police can
ticket for that now only after stopping a driver on another
Twenty-one states, including California, New Mexico, Oregon
and Washington, have so-called primary seat belt laws. But
Senate opponents raised objections, including too much government
interference, as reasons for voting down the bill.
Arizona set the pace for higher speed limits nationally beginning
in the late 1980s, and this speed limit bill was passed after
sponsors agreed in a compromise to let ADOT make the actual
State Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, the main sponsor
of the speed limit bill, Senate Bill 1221, said that increasing
the speed limit in rural Arizona makes sense because most
people are already driving an average of 80 mph.
If the highway department decided to raise the limit, traffic
engineers would conduct studies to review factors including
current speeds, traffic volume and crash history.
Arizona became the first state in the nation to raise the
speed limits on rural interstates from a nationwide 55 mph
imposed in the early 1970s back to 65 mph in 1987. The lower
limit had been ordered because of the first Arab oil embargo
and the gas shortages of the 1970s.
In 2001, the highway department raised the limits on Valley
freeways to 65 from 55 mph.
"We actually set speed limits with the goal of finding
the speed that most drivers consider to be comfortable,"
said Doug Nintzel, a department spokesman.
Some motorists say the current 75 mph outside urban areas
is challenge enough.
"If you do 65, some guy is 2 inches away from your bumper.
It doesn't matter how fast you go," said John Dickson,
57, a winter visitor from British Columbia. "I've stepped
on the gas to 80 and cars are flashing their lights at me
to go faster."
Said Marian Skindelien, 81, of Apache Junction, "Seventy-five
is tops. The limit should stay the way it is."
Skindelien has lived in Arizona since 1969 and says there
has been an increase in reckless driving, regardless of the
Law enforcement and safety officials say a speed increase
raises worries about serious and fatal crashes because the
faster a driver travels the less amount of time the person
has to react.
"It would make the accidents that we investigate much
more serious. It would make the injuries greater, and it would
probably increase our fatalities," said Steve Volden,
spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
"People will be pushing 100 miles an hour. . . . They
will be driving legally at racing speeds," Volden said.
"If this thing goes through, DPS will take a more aggressive
stance on citations and violations."
The speed bill passed last week would also raise the offense
of excessive speeding from 85 to 90, which brings stiffer
fines for offenders.
During the Senate debate on the seat belt bill, opposing
Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park, said it would cause
more problems, including bogging down police.
"Our DPS officers, who don't even have a radio to call
for backup, will have another job to do," Blendu said.
"They have more work than they can handle now."
Sen. Toni Hellon, R-Tucson and sponsor of the bill, said
keeping people buckled up would save money now spent on health
care. "I don't know how this is going to hurt."