LINCOLN — Higher speed limits are hastening our trips across the state. But they also are saving us from a few speeding tickets.
At least that’s what statistics from two stretches of roadway in eastern Nebraska indicate.
In the four months after the state raised speed limits, the number of speeding and warning tickets written by the Nebraska State Patrol decreased dramatically on Interstate 680 in Omaha and U.S. 81 in Madison County.
On I-680, where the speed limit went from 60 to 65 mph, the number of tickets fell by 50 percent; on Highway 81, where the limit went to 70, the drop was 32 percent.
Officials with the Nebraska Department of Transportation, which proposed the higher speeds, said they’re not surprised.
“People are still driving the speed they feel is comfortable,” said Tim Weander, the Omaha district engineer for the Department of Transportation. Only now, that speed is below the legal speed limit, not above.
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Whether vehicle crashes and fatalities have increased is still up for debate.
That will take more than a couple of months of statistics and study to determine, according to Fred Zwonechek, head of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, because there are so many variables in collisions, such as weather and traffic volume.
But another safety official said that the state’s 3 percent increase in traffic fatalities, as of Tuesday, makes him wonder if higher speeds are translating into more deaths on the roadways.
Mark Segerstrom of the Nebraska Safety Council, which opposed the higher speed limits, said that before the limits were raised in July, the state’s traffic fatalities were 4 percent below the five-year average. Now, they’re 3 percent ahead.
“In the State of Nebraska, fatalities keep rising every year. It’s frustrating,” Segerstrom said. He agreed, though, that more time and study is needed.
Speed limits were raised after the State Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill this spring backed by the Nebraska Department of Transportation.
Part of the rationale was that many roads have adequate design to accommodate higher speeds, and that many motorists were already exceeding the posted speed limit. Standardizing the speed limit on similar roads was also a consideration.
Traffic engineers used something called the “85th percentile rule” to determine the proper speed limit. The speed limit, according to the rule, should be set at or below the speed that 85 percent of vehicles are already traveling.
So, speed limits on four-lane expressways across the state rose from 65 mph to 70 mph, while the limits went from 60 to 65 on two-lane highways that have adequate design to allow it.
The maximum speed limit on Interstate highways, initially proposed to rise to 80, remained at 75 mph, but on segments within Omaha and Lincoln, such as I-680 and I-480, speeds were raised from 60 to 65.
Jeff Morris is among those who regularly drive I-680 and say the increase in speed limits hasn’t affected the speed they drive now.
“Nothing’s changed for me. I stay at 60 or 65,” said Morris, a musician who lives near Burke High School.
Not everyone likes higher speed limits.
In Odessa, Nebraska, an unincorporated village west of Kearney, residents complained when the limit on U.S. 30 through town was upped to 65 mph.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Lucuas Gerdes, who operates a furniture store in Odessa.
Semitrailer trucks regularly drive off of nearby I-80, Gerdes said, then make a slow turn onto Highway 30. Traffic approaching at a higher speed, he said, had less time to slow down and avoid a collision.
Phone calls, letters and a petition from local residents, Gerdes said, helped convince the Department of Transportation to ratchet back the speed limit to 55.
The state is always willing to consider citizen requests to change speed limits, according to Jeni Campana of the Nebraska Department of Transportation. In fact, the speed limit on Highway 30 was increased before the passage of the legislative bill as a result of a study requested by the public.
During a recent radio call-in show hosted by Gov. Pete Ricketts, a caller complained that collisions had increased substantially on U.S. 81 near his home in the Madison County community of Humphrey. But Campana said that statistics don’t show that, adding that the Department of Transportation is continuing to track whether higher speeds are creating problems and need to be lowered.
Fewer speeding tickets might have one downside — less money for local school districts. The Omaha Public Schools, for instance, received $932,102 in fees and fines during the last fiscal year from citations, including traffic tickets.
Whether the drop in speeding tickets will continue or motorists will eventually adjust and drive faster is unclear. Capt. Jason Scott, the head of Nebraska State Patrol operations in the Omaha area, said his troopers haven’t changed their practices in writing — or not writing — a ticket.
Scott said the higher speed limits don’t seem, so far, to have translated into more crashes and fatalities.
One other thing hasn’t changed much — excessive speeding, defined as 10 mph or more over the speed limit. Citations for that are about the same.
“People who are driving 105 mph,” Scott said, “they don’t care if the speed limit is 60 or 65.”