ATLANTA -- On Friday, Kansas became the 14th state to raise highway speed limits above 70 mph, and just weeks before, Texas boosted theirs to 85 mph, but Georgia officials seem content in a middle lane.
Lawmakers in Oregon are considering a boost.
All of the states with higher speed limits are west of the Mississippi River where long stretches of flat, straight, rural highways are more common. In the East, states like Maine, Kentucky and Maryland cap speeds at 65 mph, slower than Georgia’s 70 mph maximum.
The Western movement toward higher speeds hasn’t jumped the river yet. Even though Georgia legislators have recently introduced bills to eliminate helmet requirements for motorcyclists, eliminate driver’s licenses, and boost the penalties for hogging the fast lane, none have sponsored bills to raise the speed limit.
Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, authored the bill requiring slow drivers to yield to faster motorists in the left lane, but he thinks the speed limits should stay put.
“I’m inclined to leave things the way they are, with texting and all the other things that people are doing,” said Heard, who frequently lectures young drivers about how speeding has claimed the lives of people he’s sold insurance to in his 30 year career.
Heard was also a co-sponsor of a law that adds a $200 surcharge on speeding tickets for “super speeders” exceeding 85 mph on four-lane highways.
State law determines the maximum speed since 1995 when the federal government relinquished its authority. The Georgia departments of Transportation and Public Safety then set the actual speed limits on individual highways in consultation with federal recommendations.
The road design is another limiting factor, said Jill Goldberg, spokeswoman for the Transportation Department. Existing highways were designed to be safe at 5 mph above the speed limits in place when they were built.
“We wouldn’t go out and design a road for more than the maximum we could build it for,” she said.
For 20 years after the 1973 oil shortage, Congress held highway speeds to 55 mph to save gasoline. A lot of roads were designed and built in that period.
Another factor is geography, notes Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
“Comparing Georgia roads to Texas and Kansas is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Those states have miles of wide-open spaces without pine trees,” he said, adding that high speed is already a factor in one-third of Georgia fatalities.
The heart of the state’s current policy may have been summed up by Lt. Paul Crosper, a veteran trooper and spokesman for Public Safety, opposed to an increase.
“If you’ve got to go from Point A to Point B, just allow the allotted amount of time for when you leave,” he said.