Safe At Any Speed? Rethinking Limits on Idaho Highways

'We have more questions than answers'


Finding some equity between speed limits for trucks and passenger vehicles on Idaho highways reached gridlock Oct. 11, when a panel of lawmakers and transportation industry experts stalemated on whether to allow truckers to put more pedal to the metal.

Passenger vehicles are limited to traveling at 75 mph on Gem State highways, while commercial truckers are limited to 65 mph. The difference, according to some members of the panel, can make roads unsafe.

"Safety only comes from the man sitting in the seat, behind the wheel," said Bill Rode of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, representing 150,000 members. Rode insisted that the speed variance led to more lane-changing and more crashes.

But Dr. Michael Dixon, University of Idaho civil engineering professor, refuted the association's thesis, instead suggesting that the difference in speed limits, which was implemented statewide in 1998, resulted in fewer accidents.

Outgoing Mountain Home Republican Sen. Tim Corder, who owns a trucking company, said better technology was also responsible for the drop in accidents.

"There are a number of other factors that make it even more difficult to prove the relationship," said Corder.

Other members of the panel pointed to a 1996 drop in crashes, when speed limits were the same for all vehicles, leading more participants to suggest that the data was not conclusive enough to sway their opinion on changing speed limits.

"We don't have enough data to say this much of the crash reduction is due to a differential speed limit, this much is due to truck design, this much is due to driving habits," said Dixon. "We don't have the data to say this much is due to this, that and the other thing."

Additionally, trucking industry representatives said that increasing the speed limits for their drivers wouldn't mean that the rate of travel would be uniform.

In February the Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony from truckers on the issue. Shortly thereafter, Coeur d'Alene Republican Sen. Jim Hammond crafted a measure that would have eliminated the speed variance but criticism from truckers put the brakes on the initiative.

"As we got into that issue in the Senate Transportation Committee, we seemed to have more questions than answers," said Hammond.

Some trucking industry representatives argued in February that driving an extra 10 mph would eat up too much fuel, leading many drivers to travel at the lower speed.

But Rode said truckers should let speed become a part of a driver's individual driving habits, rather than forcing trucks to a slower rate of travel.

"I commend anyone who's trying to save fuel," said Rode. "But If the speed limit is 75 mph, it's 75 mph. It doesn't say you have to go that speed; it says that's the limit."

Ultimately a motion was made to create a recommendation to be sent to the 2013 Idaho Legislature, but the effort ended in a 5-5 tie and no other motion moved the discussion forward.

"It was pretty much a non-story from our perspective," said Dave Carlson, public affairs director of AAA Idaho.

Once back in North Idaho, Hammond told the Coeur d'Alene Press that speed limits would likely stay the same on Idaho's roads, at least for the time being.

"Regardless of how speed limits are set, it's unlikely it will change the driving habits of many truckers," he said.