TALLAHASSEE – Despite impassioned critics from both parties, the Florida Legislature passed a plan Wednesday to green-light higher speed limits on some interstates.
The controversial bill passed in the House by a one-vote, 58-56 margin, and now heads to Gov. Rick Scott, who has not indicated whether he will sign it.
Although the bill would allow the Department of Transportation to study the safety of increasing speed limits up to 75 mph on some Florida interstates, critics argued do so would increase the body counts on roadways.
“I have had to scrape people off the road. I have had to stand by the caskets,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who has worked 43 years as a mortician. “I’m a speeder. I can’t vote for this bill.”
But defenders said since roadways and vehicles were designed to travel at higher rates of speed – and drivers frequently flaunt the 70-mph limits now – drivers were more at risk when some people were driving at much slower and faster relative rates of speed.
“If today we have roads designed to handle 90- to 100-mph traffic and vehicles that can travel safely at higher rates of speed … the fact is you are endangering those drivers” by mandating lower limits, said House sponsor Matthew Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres.
Sixteen other states have raised speed limits beyond 70 mph, but Florida would join Maine as the only state east of the Mississippi River to do so.
The boost to 75 mph would apply to stretches of four-lane Interstate highways with current maximum speeds of 70 mph. That could include portions of Interstates 4, 75 and 95, and parts of Florida's Turnpike.
The bill has attracted a bipartisan coalition of critics in both the House and Senate.
“I do not believe we need this legacy,” said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.
Rep. Irv Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat whose daughter, Dori, was killed in a car wreck, said voters weren’t clamoring for higher speed limits and the move would lead to more fatalities.
“No one wants to get that call late at night,” he said. “I got the call. One of the reasons she died was because of speed.”
Divided highways with at least four lanes in sparsely populated rural areas could have speed limits boosted from 65 mph to 70 mph, including Alligator Alley, which carries Interstate 75 through the Everglades. The bill also would increase minimum speeds.
AAA, the auto organization, has lobbied against the bill and law enforcement groups also oppose it.
“None of my people in law enforcement want this bill to pass. They know the dangers out there,” said Rep. Ray Pilon, a Sarasota Republican and retired police officer.
Supporters said SB 392 would require DOT to increase speed limits only after determining safe minimum and maximum speed limits.
Increased limits would adjust speeds to what most motorists already are driving and accommodate the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the state’s roadways, the sponsors have said.
Florida's highways have had a 70 mph maximum since 1996, the last time the speed limit was reviewed.