Grand Forks legislator Jake Blum has taken up the effort to raise speed limits on interstate and multi-lane highways in North Dakota. It's a cause another Grand Forks lawmaker pushed in 2017; we backed it then and still do now, provided the state work on improving other laws related to roadway safety.
Blum, a Republican in the state House, introduced a bill that, if passed, will raise speed limits from 75 to 80 mph on I-29 and I-94 within North Dakota's borders. Speeds on multi-lane highways would increase 5 mph, from 70 to 75. In 2017, a similar bill was voted down by the Senate, 28-18. Back then, the proposal was sponsored by Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, who no longer is in the Legislature.
Naturally, safety will be a chief concern and we, too, share that worry. But it's important to note that states that maintain higher speed limits on portions of their highway systems don't necessarily see higher traffic fatalities because of it.
South Dakota is a good example. That state raised its interstate speed limits to 80 mph in 2015; the following year, there were 115 traffic fatalities statewide, the lowest in the state since 2011. In August 2018, when it appeared South Dakota may be seeing a spike in fatalities, a Highway Patrol spokesman told Forum News Service the state's numbers over the past five years have been lower than the national average and also lower than fatality numbers in surrounding states.
There were 96 traffic fatalities in South Dakota last year, down three from 2017 and down 19 from the 2016 total.
Cars and roads are safer today than ever. Some people don't bother driving 80 mph, either. We notice that often on South Dakota's interstate highways.
It's important, however, to adequately portray safety concerns. Jim Shaw, a columnist with Forum News Service, recently urged the state not to increase speed limits. He cited dangerous winter weather, low speeding fines, weak drunk-driving and distracted-driving laws and North Dakota's secondary seat belt law. He spoke to a former state trooper and lawmaker who said some of the highways in the state are simply not built to accommodate such high speeds. Also, the retired trooper who spoke to Shaw said it would be wise to enact a minimum speed limit on North Dakota interstates.
Great points all.
There are costs involved, too. The state Department of Transportation estimates it will require $4.5 million to re-engineer portions of roads, and another $287,000 to replace signs across the state. Some lawmakers are skeptical of those numbers.
That this proposal is reborn during Gov. Doug Burgum's Vision Zero initiative-designed to greatly reduce North Dakota traffic deaths-adds another wrinkle. We appreciate Vision Zero, and that effort has somewhat weakened our previously hearty appetite for higher speed limits.
All of this considered, we still don't mind the idea of higher speed limits on certain stretches of highways in North Dakota. Yet we do believe that if speeds are legally increased, the state must work harder to fine-tune other safety initiatives, such as stiffer fines for speeding, strict enforcement, primary seat belt laws and a new, minimum speed limit on interstates.