TALLAHASSEE — Florida would become the first state east of the Mississippi where drivers could travel 75 mph on major highways under a bill that squeaked past the House on Wednesday and is headed to Gov. Rick Scott.
SB 392 cleared on a 58-56 vote, the closest House vote in the 2014 session, though an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans nearly defeated it.
Supporters, most of them Republicans, said the measure simply gives engineers for the state Department of Transportation the power to set "safe and advisable" maximum speeds on state roads.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, the House sponsor, cited the 85th percentile rule, the idea that the safest speed is that at which 85 percent of drivers travel. He said it's actually more dangerous if drivers go too slowly on roads built for speed.
"I have yet to see any incontrovertible proof that speed, in and of itself, is the contributing factor to increasing fatalities," Caldwell told House members.
Leading the opposition was Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, the Legislature's most outspoken highway safety advocate. The death of his teenage daughter Dori in a 1996 highway crash provided much of the push for a stricter seat belt law in Florida, and House Democrats often defer to Slosberg's views on safety issues.
"You never want to get that call: 'Your daughter died in a car crash.' Well, I got the call, and one of the reasons she died was because of speed," Slosberg said in debate, noting that not one constituent has asked him to vote for a higher speed limit. "This bill is a threat to our public safety."
Later Wednesday, Slosberg wrote a letter to Scott asking him to veto the "harmful, irresponsible bill."
Opponents, most of them Democrats, warned that drivers would go much faster, resulting in more deadly crashes in a state of congested highways where many are tourists, college students and the elderly.
"Your constituents will die on the interstates," said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth.
One of the House's most conservative members, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he voted no because of his own tendency to drive too fast. He cited his decades of experience as a funeral director and before that as an ambulance attendant.
"I've had to scrape people off the roads," Baxley said. "It's your kids. It's your grandkids."
The higher speed limit could apply to about 1,500 miles of heavily traveled highways where the limit is now 70, including I-75, Florida's Turnpike, the Suncoast Parkway, I-95, I-4 and I-10.
Dozens of lawmakers have racked up multiple citations for speeding and other violations, including Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has been cited eight times in the past decade, and who briefly had his license suspended last year for not paying a fine from a speeding ticket.
"I don't make light of it. Speed kills," said Rouson, who voted against the bill. "But I have driven a lot of miles."
Thirteen states, most in the Midwest and West, currently have limits of 75 or higher, and Maine allows drivers to go 75 on a small rural stretch of I-95.
Shortly after the House vote, a supporter, Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, called for a second vote, as rules allow, but Republicans said it was too late because the bill had already been sent back to the Senate.
Schwartz said she had "selfishly" voted for the bill but on reflection, decided opponents had stronger arguments. But even if Schwartz's reconsideration maneuver had succeeded, the bill might still have passed because three Republicans who missed the floor vote later recorded yes votes.
Scott has not said whether he will sign the bill, but Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a Senate co-sponsor, said he was confident Scott would sign it into law.
Law enforcement groups have not taken a stand, but AAA Auto Club South of Tampa said it would seek to mobilize members statewide to persuade Scott to veto it.
AAA's Kevin Bakewell said every state with a 75 mph speed limit has a higher rate of traffic deaths than the national average.
"It's all about safety," Bakewell said. "The faster you go, if you crash, the more likely there is to be a fatality. There's really no compelling reason to do it other than people will get there a little faster."
A total of 39 Democrats voted no, along with 17 Republicans. Only six Democrats voted yes, along with 52 Republicans.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected]