Hammer Down! Highway Speed Limits Increase in Arkansas

By Thomas Beckett, Arkansas NMA Member

Initially, I had wanted to write my next post on how Amendment 100 would be implemented. This amendment entails casino gambling and how those casino taxes will be assessed and distributed to support highway funding.

Instead of how the casino taxes will help fund infrastructure in Arkansas, I decided to write about an item in the June 11th edition of the newspaper Democrat-Gazette about the speed study mandated last year by the legislature for up to 75 MPH. The increase in speed limit is of more immediate importance, as it will be implemented on July 1st, or as soon as possible after that. The casino tax issue will be addressed next time—I promise!

Highway Speed Limits Increase will soon Increase in Arkansas

During the 2019 legislative session, Act 784 was passed, which allows for speed limits to be raised on Arkansas highways, subject to support by an engineering study and traffic safety investigation. The prominent feature of this Act was to raise the speed limits on rural interstates to 75 MPH, although there were other provisions for secondary roads as well.

The interstates affected would be

  • I-40 (Ft. Smith to West Memphis)
  • I-30 (Little Rock to Texarkana)
  • I-55 (West Memphis to the Missouri line north of Blytheville)
  • I-49 (Louisiana line near Shreveport to Texarkana, and the junction of I-40 near Alma to Bentonville)
  • I-530 (Little Rock to Pine Bluff)
  • I-555 (from a junction with I-55 near West Memphis to Jonesboro)
  • On US-67, from its junction with I-40 in North Little Rock to the end of its expressway section near Walnut Ridge.

Other increases are on urban interstates (from 60 to 65 MPH) and rural multi-lane highways with non-limited access (65 MPH) unless an engineering study determines a need for a lower limit. Two-lane roads will remain at 55 MPH unless an engineering study determines a higher limit is warranted. The two multi-lane highways that come to mind are US-412 from Tontitown to Siloam Springs, and from the east side of Springdale east to Huntsville; also US-65 south of Pine Bluff to Lake Village, as well as a short stretch from Harrison to the Missouri line. Most of those miles are already posted 65.

On Wednesday, June 10, 2020, the Arkansas Highway Commission held a meeting in Little Rock to approve the new speeds. Most of the commissioners were reluctant at first to approve the recommendations, stating the need to monitor compliance and enforcement to make sure the routes with faster speeds stay safe for motorists. Also stated was a fear that higher speeds would result in more accidents and injury.

They did take some comfort in a provision to roll back speeds if evidence showed reducing speed limits to previous levels was warranted. Lorie Tudor, Department of Transportation Director, told the commission that:

“This study looked across the state and used industry standards on how to set speed limits. It’s the first step. We are going to recommend to the commission that we continually monitor these roadways. If you adopt the study today and the speed limits are raised, we will put into place continual monitoring to make sure the routes stay safe for the motorists.”

The department study noted that a review of crashes from 1994 to 2015 showed a “declining trend for fatal and serious injury crash rates since 2000, even given the steady increase in the vehicle miles traveled over this period.”

That statement refuted another report stating that “A 5 MPH increase in the maximum state speed limit was associated with an eight percent increase in fatality rates on Interstates and freeways and four percent on other roads.”

Another study from 1996 predicted a short term increase in fatality rates, but predicted, correctly, over time, those rates would fall to a lower rate than before the speed limit increase.

The speed study noted that the increased speeds were based on the Federal Highway Administration standard of 85th percentile speeds, a concept echoed in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety takes exception to the 85th percentile rule, it noted, repeating the discredited notion that if speed limits are raised, drivers will go faster, thus resulting in a new, higher, 85th percentile.

Tudor assured the commission that ARDOT would monitor crash and fatality rates on interstates and rural multi-lane highways where the speed limit is raised. The new speed limits will go into effect July 1, or when new speed signs are erected, at a cost expected to be around $350,000. Arkansas will be one of 16 states with a 75 MPH or higher speed limit on interstates and freeways.

My take: speeds will not increase significantly; this is just an adjustment of the law to reflect the reality that now exists.

Despite what the IIHS thinks, people will drive at a speed comfortable for them, regardless of what the speed signs say. As it is, when I drive on I-40, the main east-west roadway in Arkansas, I run around 77-78 MPH most of the time, when not in a clump of traffic. At that speed, I’m passing a good number of vehicles, and being passed by some. I doubt that will change much.

As it is, there are going to be places where it will be difficult to go much faster than traffic moves currently, primarily I-40 between Memphis and Little Rock, which is congested most of the time (or was before COVID-19 slowed down the economy). This section of I-40 needs to be increased to six lanes to facilitate the increased commercial traffic in the corridor. The problem here, is that there are still enough trucks governed in the mid-’60s to 70 MPH range, which makes other vehicles need to pass them, slowing things down considerably. You get a 72 MPH truck moving into the left lane to pass a 67 MPH truck, and the whole road is now moving at barely 70 MPH if that. Add in the usual cadre of slowpokes and left lane sitters, the 75 MPH signs won’t mean much.

I don’t expect many two-lanes to go to 60 MPH. I have some candidates, of course, and most of those will be in eastern Arkansas, where it’s mostly flat and straight.

Where I live in northwest Arkansas, there is too much curvature, too much up and down, poor sightlines, and poor physical characteristics (no shoulders, narrow lanes, bad pavement) to allow many of those roads to be posted much faster than the 55 MPH now in place. Some of the now 55 and 60 MPH four-lanes will be just as safe at 65.

On the whole, I think increasing the speed limit in my state is a good thing, as it reflects the reality of traffic flow during good conditions, on roads designed and built for the purpose.

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