LINCOLN — Motorists could eventually save a couple of minutes commuting between Omaha and Lincoln if state lawmakers pass a proposal to increase the existing 75 mph speed limit on Interstate 80.
But the state’s top highway engineer said Tuesday that the concept would require further study before the Department of Transportation hangs new 80 mph signs on I-80. And traffic safety advocates quickly urged caution, saying higher speed limits also come with more fatalities.
Legislative Bill 1009 would authorize transportation officials to increase speed limits by 5 mph on Interstate highways, four-lane expressways and two-lane state highways.
If the bill is approved, motorists would first see some stretches of rural two-lanes increase from 60 to 65 mph, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the Transportation Department. Limits also likely would be increased from 65 to 70 mph on most stretches of expressways.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Schneweis said. “We’ve done a lot of research that says this is something that can be done without losing focus on designing a safe transportation system.”
But an insurance industry study found that for every 5 mph increase in speed limits, the number of fatalities increases by 4 percent on two-lane highways and by 8 percent on Interstates and freeways, said Mark Segerstrom of the Nebraska Safety Council.
“At higher speeds, you have less time to react to a problem on the road,” he said.
The study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at the impact of speed limit increases from 1993 to 2013 in 41 states. The study did not include some rural states, and it was unclear whether data from Nebraska was included.
A total of 226 people died in Nebraska vehicle crashes in 2017, compared to 217 during the prior year.
More study would have to be undertaken before a 5 mph increase would be enacted for I-80, Schneweis said. Because the Interstate has six lanes between Omaha and Lincoln, that would be the first segment where the limit could possibly be increased, he added.
The department is not ready to recommend increases for I-80 west of Lincoln without additional study, Schneweis said.
Sen. John Murante of Gretna, the bill’s sponsor, suggested Tuesday that he thought the department would be able to quickly raise the speed limit between Omaha and Lincoln. Later, he said he understood that the issue would require further study but said he’s hopeful that a conclusion could be reached soon.
The Transportation Department asked him to introduce the measure, Murante said. But in his travels across the state, the senator said he has heard from plenty of Nebraskans who want higher speed limits.
A primary goal of the bill is to allow the department to bring as much consistency to highway speed limits as possible, Schneweis said.
Deaths and injuries have increased in the past when Nebraska raised speed limits. In the years since Nebraska increased Interstate speed limits to 75 mph in 1996, an average of 33 people have died in crashes. That compares to an average of 22 fatalities per year when the speed limit was 55 mph.
“It only makes sense that it would cost some lives,” said Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha, adding that he’s inclined to oppose the bill.
Six states — South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Utah — allow maximum speeds of 80 mph on all or portions of rural Interstate highways. Texas allows a maximum of 85 mph on some Interstate segments.
The bill will be heard in the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, where it has the support of the chairman, Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson.