RALEIGH, WAKE COUNTY - A bill opening the door to 75 mph speed limits on some highways in North Carolina was sent back to a House committee Thursday after lawmakers put off a vote over safety concerns.
The House debated the measure at length but decided to return it to the Transportation Committee. The Senate already passed the bill, which would allow the Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit from 70 to 75 on highways and interstates if studies proved the change was safe.
An amendment bumping up the threshold for more serious speeding violations to 85 mph from 80 mph to reflect the bill's changes failed after some lawmakers argued it would allow people to drive faster without facing penalties. The amendment would've applied uniformly, not just to roads where the speed was raised.
Supporters of the bill say it improves efficiency and allows DOT to change speeds only after careful consideration. Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, said the safest speed is the one at which most drivers are already traveling.
"Our freeways are wide open. They are safe roads," he said. "I think we should let the engineers at DOT do their job, and I'd ask that you support this bill."
But most lawmakers who debated the bill questioned its usefulness and said they fear it would lead to more deaths.
"This bill came as a result of a politician who wanted to go faster on the highway," said Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell.
Other lawmakers said improved driving times aren't worth the downside. Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said raising the speed limit will make the effective rate that people drive without fear of getting a violation that much higher.
"We know it's going up to 85 if we do this, but there are a lot of people out there who are not capable of handling those additional speeds," he said.
Ann McCartt, a senior vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said concerns that the average speed would edge upward are backed by research.
"There's always a trade-off when limits are raised," McCartt said. "The cost is going to be eventually higher speeds, more crashes and more deaths."
Fifteen states -- mostly clustered in the West -- have maximum speed limits of 75 mph, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Maine is the only East Coast state with a 75 mph limit, and it applies only to a remote interstate approaching the Canadian border.
State DOT hasn't publicly given an opinion on the bill, saying only that some roads could handle higher speed limits.
Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick and the House lawmaker shepherding the bill, said he believes the bill could return to the floor after changes are made in committee, though he didn't point to any specific amendments that would make the measure more palatable to some members.
Iler may need to work quickly. Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said Thursday he wants to adjourn the regular session by July 4.
NewsChannel 12 asked local residents about their opinions on the bill. Anthony Allen said he drives Highway 264 in Greenville to work every day. He said if the speed limit was 75 mph, it would make for an easier commute.
"I think that people are already running 75. If you don't, you'll get run over, so I would say it would be more beneficial than not," said Allen.
But Loran Grady said raising the speed limit would make roadways even more dangerous.
"People are already going 75 or 80 in a 70. If they raise it to 75, they'll be going 80, 85 or 90 and there will probably be more casualties," Grady told NewsChannel 12.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 15 states currently have max speed limits of 75 mph. But only one of those states, Maine, is on the East Coast.