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NC lawmakers ask: Does 75 mph really mean 85 mph?

By Bruce Siceloff
bsiceloff@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH - A favorable House committee vote Tuesday moved North Carolina a step closer to setting highway speed limits as high as 75 mph, but some legislators worried that drivers really would get away with driving as fast as 85 mph.

Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary, called it an “unwritten rule.”

“Everybody knows the reality is that on a 70, you go 80,” Dollar said at a House Transportation Committee meeting. “You can pretty well set your cruise control at 78 or so, and you’re not going to get a ticket.

“You’re bumping this up another five miles. You’re bumping it up to everybody saying OK, if it’s 75, we can go right at 84, 85 and be pretty well comfortable,” Dollar said.

With a handful of members dissenting, the committee approved and sent to the House floor a bill authorizing the state Department of Transportation to set speed limits as high as 75 mph – instead of the current maximum, 70 mph – on interstate and controlled-access highways where the higher speed is deemed “safe and reasonable.”

Studies have shown that state troopers don’t hand out many speeding tickets to drivers they clock at less than 10 mph over the posted limit. But a bill supporter, Rep. Frank Iler, pointed out that troopers will still have an extra reason to target speeders who exceed 80 mph – just 5 mph more than the proposed new maximum.

The state’s “excessive speeding” law makes it a Class 2 misdemeanor to drive either 15 mph over the posted speed limit or faster than 80 mph. Violators lose their licenses for 30 days, and they can be sentenced to community service for up to 30 days. More than 226,000 drivers were charged with excessive speeding in 2012, and more than 19,000 were convicted, according to court records.

Approving a 75 mph limit will not alter the excessive speeding law.

“So you still cannot go 80, which is the case now,” said Iler, a Republican from Oak Island. “That won’t change.”

Sen. Neal Hunt, a Republican from Raleigh, sponsored the proposal to have North Carolina join 16 other states that allow drivers to go as fast as 75 mph on some roads. The Senate approved it in a 45-1 vote, with the lone dissent coming from Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat.

Reps. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, and Rayne Brown, a Lexington Republican, shared Dollar’s concern that a higher speed limit would be dangerous.

“I truly believe that at least one person might die because of this bill that might not have died,” Brown said. “I just don’t think we’re capable of handling cars at such speeds.”

Carney figured that the state will collect more gas taxes because faster cars will burn more fuel.

“Strange way to increase our coffers around here,” Carney said.

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