TALLAHASSEE — If you want to hit the gas pedal a little harder on Florida's interstate highways, some state lawmakers want to help you.
In a bipartisan move, Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, say it's time to increase the maximum speed limit on rural interstates in Florida from 70 to 75 mph, as in 14 other states. Utah allows 80 mph and Texas allows 85 in some areas.
Montana, for years the only state with no speed limits, set it at 75 more than a decade ago.
The Florida change would require approval by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott in next spring's 2014 session — an election year when Tallahassee politicians are usually eager to please the voters.
"Speed limits should be set based on what most drivers are actually driving," Brandes said. "People drive at the speed they feel comfortable driving."
The nationwide standard for setting speed limits is known as the 85th percentile rule, the speed at which 85 percent of traffic moves in a given area.
Brandes, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee that is sure to give the idea a big push, said his bill (SB 392) would allow the speed limit to rise to 75 only after engineers for the state Department of Transportation concluded it was safe, based on a variety of factors.
"They're the final arbiters," he said, noting that speed limits in Florida have not been reviewed since 1995 when the nationwide 55 mph speed limit was abolished.
The speed limit is 70 mph on 1,472 miles of interstate highway in Florida. Most of those miles are in Central and North Florida on Interstate 10, I-75, Florida's Turnpike, I-95, the Suncoast Parkway and parts of I-4.
The speed limit is 65 on highways with divided medians and 60 miles per hour on other roads that Florida DOT oversees.
One opponent of the idea is AAA Auto Club South, a leading auto safety organization.
"Any discussion of increasing speed limits should consider the following factors: the design speed of the roadway, number of access and exit points, roadside environment, capacity of the roadway, school zones and presence of pedestrians, general traffic patterns, and enforcement," said AAA South spokeswoman Karen Morgan.
AAA said that in the 16 states with a speed limit of 75 mph, speed was a factor in nearly one-third of all fatal crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Brandes and Clemens cited data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showing that since 1996, the number of traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven has declined.
Sheriffs and other law enforcement groups have not taken a stand on the legislation. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his initial reaction was supportive.
"I don't see that much of a difference between 70 and 75," Gualtieri said.
Whether higher speed limits result in more fatal accidents has long been a subject of debate.
Brandes has a clean driving record, but Clemens knows a thing or two about speed limits.
He was ticketed for speeding twice within a week in 2011, both times for going 79 mph in a 70 zone on North Florida interstate highways.
"I don't know that I'd call that a factor" in his decision to support a higher speed limit, Clemens said. "But I certainly question the need for issuing speeding citations on long, flat, rural roads."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.