LB 1009: Speeding Towards Bad Policy

Posted on January 30, 2018 · Posted in General, News

We had an immediate reaction when we read this news in the Lincoln Journal Star back on January 16:

“Gov. Pete Ricketts is backing a proposal to raise the speed limit on parts of Interstate 80 in Nebraska as well as other state highways….Introduced Tuesday, the bill (LB1009) by Sens. John Murante of Gretna and Curt Friesen of Henderson.”  

This got our attention for several reasons, notably that the speed limit increases (i.e.: from 60mph to 65mph) on “other state highways” include the types of roads that people on bikes enjoy riding, roads that several events like BRAN and Tour de Nebraska utilize.

We also found ourselves nodding in agreement with everything Omaha World Herald columnist Matthew Hansen had to say in his recent column, “Let’s do the Math Before Raising the Speed Limits.”

However, instead of blasting out a hastily thought out reaction to the news of this bill, we decided to continue on Hansen’s theme and do some additional homework of our own to see what we could learn about the bigger picture before responding.

Our homework produced several red flags.

The position of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance should be obvious: we oppose this bill because increasing the speeds of cars on highways jeopardizes the safety of people on bikes that might be riding on highways.  However, our opposition also goes to a higher level: the process (or lack thereof) that lead to this bill is not how good policy is made.

We began our homework by contacting The Nebraska Department of Transportation Highway Safety.  According to their website, this division the Nebraska Department of Transportation “is responsible for developing and implementing effective strategies to reduce the state’s traffic-related injury and fatality rates.” We asked the department’s administrator the  following questions:

  1.  Has the Highway Safety Office been consulted to provide information regarding the impact on safety that a higher   speed limit would have?
  2.  Has NDOT reviewed and/or approved the language in the bill? 
  3.  Does increasing speed limits on highways further the Towards Zero Deaths goals that the department has established?

We received a prompt and polite response, saying the office was told that “any questions (received) regarding LB 1009 should be directed to the NDOT Communication Division.”  This was red flag #1.

In the meantime, we also posed the same questions to NDOT’s legislative affairs office, who provided a bit more insight, specifically that the bill is “more of a standardization and modernization than strictly increasing speed limits across the board. There are areas in rural Nebraska where portions of a highway are 60 mph and other portions are 65 mph.”  The logic applied to “increased safety” comes in the form of “matching a driver’s expectations” with a consistent speed limit. We were also reassured that “(a)ll of these potential changes were studied by NDOT over the course of 2+ years to ensure that any speed limit adjustments were warranted. We do take safety very seriously.”  

This comment about 2+ years of study matches up with what Senator Murante said in the LJS, “…when the data is presented, it will be a clear and convincing case to the people of Nebraska this is the right thing to do.”  Needless to say, like Matthew Hansen, we were eager to see the results of this study and thought that perhaps, contrary to what it seems, maybe there was some significant foresight on behalf of the senator in asking for NDOT’s help 2 years ago.

When we asked NDOT if the outputs of those public studies were available to review, we were told that the issue had not been studied in and of itself; rather, pieces of data were gathered from a variety of sources, including highway redesigns or maintenance, some by observation of traffic patterns.  This was red flag #2.

We do have these facts, courtesy of the Nebraska Safety Council, as quoted in the Omaha World Herald:
“… 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.”  Hansen cites several additional statistics that are consistent with this.

Which leads us back to the top.  If the Nebraska Department of Transportation has established goals in the freshly updated “Towards Zero Deaths” plan, and we know that higher speeds lead to a higher number of fatalities, WHY WOULD WE INCREASE OUR SPEED LIMITS?  According to the introduction to the Towards Zero Deaths report, Nebraska is actually getting worse when it comes to fatalities:

Coming out of record low highway fatalities in 2011, the 2012-2016 SHSP set a very aggressive goal of continuing that steep decline in the trend line. Unfortunately, the fatality numbers bounced back up and, despite hard work and efforts, the state failed to meet that goal. The 2017-2021 SHSP sets a challenging but attainable goal that could save over 268 lives over the next five years. (emphasis added)

According to the LJS article, Governor Ricketts stated that LB 1009 “would make Nebraska’s transportation system more effective, efficient and customer-focused.”

Our transportation system should be built and operated with the safety of all users in mind, and should be based on best practice and thorough research. The phrases “effective, efficient and customer-focused,” while great sounding politically, don’t correlate with that notion:

If “efficient” means a person will get to their destination faster, the calculations of Matthew Hansen’s intern as reported in his column show that the efficiency is minimal at best.  

If “effective” is supposed to correlate to “safe,” the statistics reported by the Nebraska Safety Council and many others contradict that logic. If safety is an issue regarding matching driver’s expectations by maintaining a consistent speed limit on certain highways, why not match the lower/safer speed posted, rather than bump it up?

Senator Murante’s statement to the LJS ended with, “I’m firmly convinced the roads will be safe and we’ll be able to see some economic growth,” he said.

This is another statement that sounds great politically, but we simply fail to see any logic to the idea that raising speed limits spurs economic growth. We’re open to review any research that proves this point. However, if anything, raising speed limits will end up costing people MORE MONEY, as higher speeds lead to higher fuel consumption, as noted in the US News article, 5 Gasoline-Wasting Mistakes Most Drivers Make:

At speeds over 60mph, gas mileage drops off a lot more than most drivers probably realize… It takes more power to overcome the added resistance, which forces the engine to work harder, burning more fuel. A lot more.”

Perhaps economic growth refers to higher gas tax revenue for the state of Nebraska?

Creating effective transportation policy requires thoughtful consideration. Not only does LB 1009 jeopardize safety for people on bikes; it jeopardizes safety for people driving cars, in direct conflict with NDOT’s stated goals of reducing fatalities; it provides only minimal time savings; and it increases fuel costs for businesses and consumers.  This is a bad bill, and in our opinion, NDOT unfortunately seems to have been put in a sticky spot. In the bigger picture, this a bad way to set policy – especially policy that has serious safety implications for all users of our roads.  We’ll be testifying accordingly at the bill’s hearing on February 6.