BISMARCK - A one-number change in state law was debated for almost an hour in a North Dakota legislative committee Thursday, Jan. 12.
Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, said his bill to increase the speed limit to 80 mph from 75 mph on North Dakota's interstate highways would help drivers save money in the form of fewer speeding tickets. People driving 50,000 miles in a year could also save an hour per week if the speed limit was boosted, he said.
"For people who drive daily, this would be an incredible gift," Laffen said.
Laffen's bill would only affect interstates 29 and 94. It would continue to allow cities along those roads to control the speed limit within their boundaries.
But the change could come with significant costs. Ronald Henke, deputy director for engineering at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, presented a fiscal note with a $155,000 price tag for changing the speed limit signs. Over the long term, the fiscal note predicted $326.8 million in costs related to lengthening interchange ramps, acceleration or deceleration lanes, guardrails and other infrastructure changes.
Some members of the Senate Transportation Committee, which Laffen chairs, were skeptical of that number.
"That seems like a huge, huge exaggerated figure," Sen. Tom Campbell, R-Grafton, said.
Laffen also argued the change would not make North Dakota's interstates more unsafe. He said the "prevailing speed," or the speed at which traffic is actually moving, on North Dakota's interstates is already 80 mph.
"Raising the limit causes the slower traffic to move up to the prevailing speed and brings a more uniform flow of traffic," Laffen's prepared testimony said. "This change is not going to raise our prevailing speed and it's not going to change our traffic accident statistics."
Laffen said South Dakota has seen a decrease in fatalities since it implemented the 80 mph speed limit in 2015. The state had 115 traffic fatalities in 2016, the lowest since 2011.
But Tony Mangan, public information officer for the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, said they didn't have any specific data to show what effect the new speed limit has had on fatal crashes.
Henke cited a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that argued a 5 mph increase in the speed limit was associated with an 8 percent increase in fatalities on the interstates.
There were 111 speed-related fatal crashes in 2015 in North Dakota, down from a 10-year high of 147 in 2012, according to a North Dakota Highway Patrol report.
Meanwhile, a separate House bill goes further than Laffen's proposal by upping the speed limit on paved two-lane highways to 70 mph from 65 mph, as well as bumping the limit on divided multilane highways to 75 mph from 70 mph. It also includes the interstate speed limit increase to 80 mph.
Primary sponsor Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said a driver's speed is largely based on comfort.
"I don't believe people would speed as many miles over the speed limit if it was 80 mph as when it's 75 mph," he said.
Koppelman's bill was introduced Monday and was referred to the House Transportation Committee.