TALLAHASSEE -- "Seventy-nine. In the rain. With no headlights on."
With those words, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper John Schultz sped onto Interstate 10 and flipped on his red, white and blue flashing lights and pulled over a black Nissan Maxima. He told the driver she was getting a ticket for exceeding the 70 mph speed limit.
"She said, `I had the cruise control set at 79.' Yeah, it's working," Schultz said as he wrote the ticket. "She said `I just assumed I could go 10 over.' So if we change the limit to 75, she'd be going 85."
Highway safety advocates say that if the Florida Legislature passes a bill that would allow the state to raise the speed limit to 75 mph there could be more crashes, injuries and deaths. The bill's supporters say people are already driving that fast and the speed limit should reflect reality -- and would actually be safer.
"If you artificially force lower speed limits on roads that can accommodate faster speed limits, what you're going to have is a greater disparity between the fastest drivers and the slowest drivers and that's actually a much more unsafe environment than having everybody going faster together," Sen. Jeff Clemens said.
The bill (SB 392) Clemens, D-Lake Worth, sponsored along with Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg sailed through committees with little opposition and is ready to be considered by the full Senate. A House bill (HB 761) sponsored by Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell of Lehigh Acres has also received little opposition and has one more committee stop before being ready for a House vote.
The measures would allow the Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on interstate and limited access highways from 70 to 75 mph, from 65 to 70 mph on rural, four-lane divided highways and up to 65 mph on other roads. It does not automatically raise the speed limits.
"If you look back to when we rescinded the national speed limit (of 55 mph) in the mid-'90s until now, it's been 20 years of history and I think in only one year have fatalities actually increased. So the predictions of doom
and gloom that we had in the mid-'90s just didn't come true," Clemens said.
But a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report showed that traffic fatalities on rural interstates increased by 10 percent in 1996, the year after the national speed limit was lifted and states were allowed to set their own standards.
And the fear of highway safety advocates is that another increase in Florida will result in more deaths because people will drive faster and be that much more at risk of losing control. The higher speeds also create more violent collisions, they say.
"It's clear that injuries and fatalities go up whenever someone raises the speed limit," John Ulczycki, a vice president of the National Safety Council, said in a press release opposing the bills. "Raising speed limits will increase the likelihood of a crash, and the government would in effect be telling people it's safe to drive faster."
Schultz, who patrols an area near Tallahassee, estimates most drivers on Interstate 10 are driving between 75 and 80 mph, and he thinks that will increase with a higher limit. Driving in the rain, he clocked a string of traffic going in the opposite direction.
"Seventy-eight," he said after the first radar reading. "There's 79 on the truck. That motorcycle right there is 82. Where I'm going with this is it's raining out and no one reduces their speed."
And a higher speed limit will make the situation more dangerous, he said. He also pointed out that the speed limit now is essentially 75 mph because the state only allows for warnings and not fines for the first five miles per hour above the speed limit.
"They're going to take it to the next extreme and go up even higher," Schultz said. "We want to keep people safe."