Over the objections of AAA, Florida lawmakers are closer to paving the way for some roads in the Sunshine State to be among the fastest east of the Mississippi.
The House Economic Affairs Committee on Friday voted 12-4 to approve a measure (HB 761) that could push speeds on some state highways from 70 mph to 75 mph.
The measure, which now heads to the House floor, directs the state Department of Transportation to determine the safe minimum and maximum speed limits on all divided highways that have at least four lanes.
A companion (SB 392) in the Senate -- where the proposal originated -- awaits an appearance on the floor.
Supporters of the bill say many drivers are already going faster than the current top rate of 70 mph. But critics say Florida could see more accidents by joining Maine in being the only state east of the Mississippi River with speed limits higher than 70 mph.
Lee Moffitt, lobbying on behalf of AAA Auto Club South, said that of the 16 states that have speeds at or above 75 mph, 13 exceed the national average for traffic fatalities.
"It's no secret too that many drivers feel they can drive a few miles over the speed limit," Moffitt told the committee. "In fact, Florida law allows for a warning for those traveling less than six miles per hour over the posted speed limit. An increase to 75 mph means those drivers are going to push it even more, and the norm will be 80 or more on the highways in the state."
Rep. Matt Caldwell, the Lehigh Acres Republican who sponsored the House bill, said he hadn't reviewed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers used by Moffitt, but questioned if weather could be a factor for high crash numbers coming out of states with higher speed limits.
"We would all recall Florida was the only state during the winter that didn't have snow," Caldwell said. "Forty-nine other states had snow. I would think perhaps that may have an impact on accident rates."
But Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, was among those voting against the measure due to the AAA opposition.
"I can't get past the AAA's numbers, and the facts don't lie," Clelland said.
The bill could eventually allow state transportation officials to increase speed limits on Florida's "limited access highways" to 75 mph and raise the maximum posted limits on divided four-lane highways in sparsely populated rural areas from 65 mph to 70 mph. The transportation department could hike speeds to 60 mph on other roads they deem safe. And the department would also have the authority to set minimum speeds on certain highways.
Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said that his agency, which didn't request the bill, would only conduct the speed studies in select areas where conditions may warrant an increase.
"You want to be closer to what people feel comfortable driving at, that's why you do a speed study, and then you evaluate if that road is built to handle that speed," Prasad said.
Florida's highways have had a 70 mph maximum since 1996, the last time the speed limit was reviewed.