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Fast lane might get even faster in Arizona

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 violation.

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 move.

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 posted limit.

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."