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Md speed limits could reach 70 mph

Maryland lawmakers voted Thursday to increase the maximum speed on interstate highways to 70 mph, but don't hit the gas pedal just yet.

Legislation likely headed to Gov. Larry Hogan's desk would give state highway officials authority to bump up the speed limit beyond the current top speed of 65 mph.

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It would not require them to do so, and the agency has only put the state's current maximum speed limit on a handful of roadways.

"It'd save me 15 minutes coming here," said Western Maryland Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Republican who sponsored the bill. "It starts to add up. … [Over time,] I could save one whole workday," he said.

Identical bills to increase the speed limit have passed the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates by veto-proof margins. They require a small procedural step before heading to the governor, who has not taken a position publicly on the issue.

The Maryland Department of Transportation told lawmakers that even if they raise the maximum, "speed limits would continue to be set on a case-by-case basis."

Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said the administration would review the bill, which would make Maryland the 23rd state in the country with a top speed of 70 mph. Many of those states, however, have long stretches of rural highways.

The change would make Maryland just one of five states in the more densely developed northeastern corridor to let drivers push the needle that far. Currently Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia allow speed limits of up to 70 mph.

A dozen other states set the maximum at 75 mph, and four — all in the western U.S. — let drivers go 80 mph or more on rural roads.

Leaving the decision to raise speed limits in the hands of state officials gives little comfort to opponents who equate higher speeds with more deaths.

"It's scary," said Baltimore County Sen. Jim Brochin, a Democrat who voted against the bill. "The road might be able to take the speed, but the driver can not."

Brochin, whose teenage daughter is learning to drive, said none of his constituents have requested higher speed limits, but he suspects they would take advantage of a zippier commute if given the option.

"The reality is a 55-mph ... speed limit on the Baltimore Beltway right now means that people are going 63 to 65. If you bump that up to even 65, you're realistically saying that the average speed will be somewhere in the 70s."

Even though the state maximum speed limit is currently 65 mph, there are only a few roadways where drivers are allowed to go that fast — including Interstates 95, 68, 70, 97, 81, and U.S. 50, 13 and 340/15, as well as the portion of I-83 north of Shawan Road. Most major highways in Maryland have posted speed limits of 55 mph, including both beltways.

State transportation officials say they calculate appropriate speed limits in part by relying on how fast 85 percent of traffic moves under normal conditions, as well as taking road conditions and past accidents into account.

The Maryland chapter of the motorist advocacy group AAA trusts state engineers to get it right, said spokeswoman Ragina Averalla, who added that 70 mph is not too high for certain parts of the state.

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"Obviously, if there was an increase in crashes on any roadway because of increased speed limits, that would be of great concern for AAA," she said. "While we consistently advocate for ways to decrease traffic congestion and increase motorist mobility, which increasing speed limits often does, our primary concern remains the overall traffic safety of motorists on our roadways."

States controlled their own top speed limits until the mid-1970s, when Congress began to withhold highway money from states that set their maximums above 55 mph. That provision was relaxed for rural highways in 1987 and completely repealed in 1995.

Some lawmakers have tried for years to ease speed restrictions on certain roads, but proposals that passed the House of Delegates died in a Senate committee.

This year, with high turnover in both chambers and a new chairman at the helm of a key committee, a pair of Western Maryland lawmakers successfully convinced their colleagues to raise the limit spelled out in state law.

The House of Delegates passed the bill by 126-10 on Wednesday; the Senate passed an identical version 39-7 last month. Each chamber must consent once more before the bill is sent to Hogan.

Most proponents for the increase come from rural areas of the state. The Garrett and Allegany county commissions asked state lawmakers to increase the state's speed limit along Interstate 68 in Maryland's western reaches, where congestion is not a problem.

The highway's limit increases from 65 to 70 mph when it crosses into West Virginia, and the president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce suggested that a higher speed limit would benefit tourism in Maryland.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit that studies how to reduce highway deaths, contends that any increase in speed makes crashes more likely and more damaging.

"Even just 5 miles an hour, you get a much larger increase in the forces if a crash happens," said Russ Rader, a senior vice president with the institute. "Raising speed limits is popular. It's happening all around the country. It gets people to their destinations a little faster, but it doesn't come without a cost. The laws of physics haven't been repealed."

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