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Bill could lead to highway speeds up to 85 mph

CARSON CITY — Tired of creeping along Nevada highways at 70 mph?

So is state Sen. Don Gustavson.

On Monday, Gustavson introduced Senate Bill 191, which would allow the state Department of Transportation to increase the maximum speed limit in Nevada to 85 mph where the agency determines that speed is safe.

“Some legislators have expressed to me what a long lonely drive it is from Las Vegas to the state Capitol,’’ the Republican from Sparks said. “Passage of this legislation could make them less lonely.’’

Gustavson has a reputation for introducing futile bills such as attempts to repeal the motorcycle helmet law. On this issue, however, he has widespread support. Co-sponsors include 16 of the 21 senators, including Senate Democrat leader Mo Denis and Republican leader Michael Roberson. In the Assembly, Republican leader Pat Hickey is a co-sponsor.

“Yes, I do think it will pass, (but) I haven’t talked to the governor yet,” Gustavson said.

Gov. Brian Sandoval did not respond Monday for a request for comment.

On rural highways in Nevada, the top speed is 70 mph. On interstates it’s 75.

Only Utah and Texas have speed limits exceeding 75 mph. In Texas, 80 mph is common, and one highway has a posted limit of 85. In Utah, 80 mph is allowed in several places.

When Utah raised the limit to 80 mph on some highways, the assumption was that drivers would go 90 mph. The actual average speed, however, rose from 83 mph to 85 mph. The Deseret News in Salt Lake City reported in September that legislation to provide for more 80 mph roads would be introduced in the Utah Legislature because there were no increases in crashes.

“My first concern is safety, but studies have revealed fewer mishaps on highways where speed actually increased,” Gustavson said. “This is likely due to the fact that many travelers were already going these speeds and are now observing what’s ahead of them instead of concentrating on their rear-view mirror ticket-bearing troopers.”

Denis said his “only concern” is that the state might use the higher speeds to create speed traps.

“In Utah it goes to 80 and then drops back to 70,” he said.

Transportation Department spokesman Scott Magruder said his agency takes a neutral position. He added the agency determines speed limits on three factors, whether there is limited access to road, whether a road is a divided highway with two, four or more lanes and on the “85 percent rule.”

That rule determines the average speed driven by 85 percent of the motorists. On Interstate 80 in Northern Nevada, the average speed is 79 mph where the limit is 75 mph.

Magruder questioned whether U.S. Highway 95, the main route between Las Vegas and Reno, could ever see higher limits. The road for hundreds of miles is two-lane without wide shoulders.

NDOT said highways likely to see limits higher than 80 mph are the 360 miles of I-80 from Fernley to West Wendover in Northern Nevada and 72 miles of I-15 from Craig Road to Mesquite. It would cost $750,000 to change the 75 mph signs on I-80 alone, the agency said.

Drivers were once allowed to travel at any “safe and sane” speed in Nevada. In the mid-1970s, the federal government established a 55 mph national maximum speed limit by threatening to withhold highway funds from states that didn’t comply. The unpopular requirement was loosened for rural interstates in 1987 and repealed in 1995, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Contact Carson City Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.

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