TALLAHASSEE — Drivers should be able to travel at 75 mph on most interstate highways in Florida, the Senate voted Thursday.
By a 27-11 vote, senators gave the Department of Transportation the leeway to decide where the speed limit can rise from 70 to 75 on about 1,500 miles of roadway on Interstate 75, I-95, I-10, I-4, Florida's Turnpike and the Suncoast Parkway.
What's the big deal, proponents wondered.
"Many of us are already driving at that level," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsor of the bill, SB 392. Speed limits also could rise by 5 miles per hour on roads where it's now 60 or 65 mph.
Supporters dismissed opponents' arguments that speed kills and that it's dangerous to encourage people to drive faster in a state with so many elderly motorists and tourists.
"We're a tourist state. We want people to slow down, not speed up," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
With one week left in the 2014 session, attention turns to the House where a similar measure, HB 761, has been stalled for about two weeks. After the Senate vote, though, Speaker Will Weatherford said he expects to take it up.
"I don't know of any policy objection to the bill within the chamber," Weatherford said. "I'm sure there will be some 'no' votes over here, but I haven't heard any pressing reason about why we would not bring it to the floor."
Eight of the 11 senators who voted against increasing the speed limit are women; eight are Democrats and three are Republicans.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said that because motorists generally drive 9 mph above the posted speed limit, the Legislature would be legalizing driving at 84 mph.
"People are still going to go 9 miles above whatever the limit is," said Detert, who acknowledged she likes to get from her Sarasota-area home to Tallahassee as quickly as she can. "I'm not going to pretend that I'm a slow driver. I've got a five-hour commute. I like to get here quick."
"The faster you allow people to drive, the faster they're going to go," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "Slow down, Senate. This is a safety issue. It's not funny."
AAA Auto Club South of Tampa, a statewide auto safety group, opposes a higher speed limit. The group said that in 2012, speed was a factor in one-third of the 10,219 motor vehicle deaths. AAA also said that in 13 of 16 states that have raised speed limits above 70, speed-related fatalities are above the national average of 30 percent.
Statewide law enforcement groups such as the Florida Sheriffs Association and Florida Highway Patrol have not taken a position on increasing the speed limit.
Data from the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles shows that between 2005 and 2012, the number of traffic deaths declined every year but in 2012, when the number of fatalities rose slightly, from 2,400 in 2011 to 2,430 in 2012.
State officials cautioned that various factors contribute to the number of fatalities, including safer cars, increased seat belt use, traffic volume and the amount of time drivers spend on the roads.
Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, a co-sponsor of the higher speed limit, said traffic deaths in Florida are lower today than in the mid 1990s, when the universal speed limit was 55 mph.
"Most people innately understand how fast they can travel, and how safe they can drive," Clemens said. "This bill allows DOT to set the speed limit based on engineering and science, not based on the whims of politicians."
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.
The bill allows for higher limits only after engineers for the state Department of Transportation conclude it is safe, based on a variety of factors.
If the bill becomes law, Florida would join 14 other states with a maximum speed limit of 75 mph on rural interstates. 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.
Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.