Speed limits

CASPER, Wyo, — The Wyoming Department of Transportation will post new 70-mph speed limits on thousands of miles of state highways in the coming months.

Workers have already increased the limit on sections of U.S. 85 between Cheyenne and Newcastle and U.S. 130 from Walcott Junction to Saratoga, according to a WYDOT statement. Additionally, state Highway 120 from 18 miles north of Cody to the Montana border has new signs.

The changes come after the state Legislature passed Senate File 72, which requires an increase in sections of roads that are currently 65 mph. Gov. Matt Mead signed SF72 into law Tuesday.

New speed limit signs are being manufactured. WYDOT officials expect to have 1,500 miles of highway raised to 70 mph by the end of April, and another 1,000 miles by the end of May. Work will continue through the summer.

By the end of April, three roads in Natrona County will have 70-mph limits, said Doug McGee of WYDOT:

• U.S. 20-26 from western Casper to Shoshone.

• State Highway 220 from west of Alcova to Rawlins.

• State Highway 487 from the junction with Highway 220 to Medicine Bow.

Drivers must follow 65 mph limits until the new signs are up, said Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller in the statement.

Speeds in some areas will not increase because of safety concerns, such as school zones and highways in urban areas.

In all, 900 new signs will be needed, said Joel Meena, WYDOT state traffic engineer. In addition to signs saying 70, some areas will need new curve warning signs. WYDOT will make some changes in pavement markings for passing and no-passing zones.

WYDOT will monitor the 70 mph sections to determine how the increase affects safety.

“We’ll look at the roads and driving behaviors to ensure there is no significant increase in crashes,” WYDOT Director Bill Panos said. “If we find there has been a significant increase, we will take the actions necessary to protect the safety of the driving public.”

Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, sponsored SF72. He is also running for U.S. House.

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Christensen said he sponsored the bill because the state had been studying the issue for two years. Yet speeds had not changed, even though the Legislature had passed bills urging for them to increase when it’s safe.

“I thought maybe it was an opportunity to stop spending money studying and raise the speed limit,” he said. “That certainly was the intention.”

Throughout the country, state legislatures are evaluating more bills that increase speed limits. But high speeds can be unsafe, said Cathy Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based nonprofit public health, safety and consumer group.

Speed is a silent killer on highways. People are more likely to be killed or permanently injured at high speeds than lower speeds, Chase said.

A third of crashes are speeding-related, she said.

She pointed to federal data showing that in a six-state region that includes Wyoming, fatalities were up in the first nine months of 2015 compared with the same time in 2014.

“Cars and people were not built to walk away and survive these crashes,” she said. “Every time speeds are bumped up, people exceed the speed limit.”

Christensen, who sponsored the bill, said he sought data from WYDOT on fatalities and permanent injuries when speeds on interstates increased from 75 mph to 80 mph.

There wasn’t much of an increase in fatalities or serious injury accidents, Christensen said. When the limit was 75, there was more variation between the speeds of the fastest and slowest vehicles. That creates an accident risk, he said.

“The extreme highs and lows were narrowed, resulting in a more even traffic pattern, closer to 81 (mph) on average,” he said.

Christensen sought data on average speeds on state highways and found people are traveling 71 or 72 mph, he said.

“People tend to drive where they’re comfortable,” he said. “That’s what we found out when we raised the speeds on the freeways.”

Montana has large portions of state highway with 70 mph speeds, he said.

“Their roads are not anywhere near the quality, in my opinion, of Wyoming roads statewide — safe and wide and well taken care of,” he said. “I just think our level of roads — we have really exceptional highways. There’s always that concern if the speed goes up 1, 5, 10 miles an hour, there’s going to be some outcomes. I think it’s a reasonable question, but the research didn’t point to that making a significant difference, based on how we’re already traveling.”

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