The speed limits on Arkansas highways and interstates will soon be increasing, but there are concerns it will lead to more accident fatalities, as has happened in other states.
Last year the Arkansas General Assembly passed legislation which puts the state on pace with neighboring states like Texas and Oklahoma. The maximum speed on rural stretches of interstates will go from 70 to 75 miles-per-hour. Some urban sections and four-lane highways will increase from 60 to 65 mph.
The Arkansas Highway Commission last month approved study recommendations that tested the ability for the existing infrastructure to handle an increase in speed limits, while also allowing for the scaling back of limits if evidence from additional studies warrants a decrease.
Administrative steps have been underway in recent weeks to implement the change and the transition could have taken effect as early as July 1. But officials say it will be several additional weeks before new speed limit signs can be installed and the change takes effect.
"If you look back to the last time Arkansas increased the speed limit… it went from 65 to 70 in 1996, and the fatality rate increased by 9.4% over the 24 months following that increase," said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the interests of trucking companies in politics and regulation.
"It’s certainly a concern that the fatality rate and the crash severity rate will increase in Arkansas over the next 12-to-24 months as those speed limits go into effect, but ultimately it’s a public policy decision made by the legislature and has support of the public."
She notes the change is part of a larger trend.
"If you look at the map, pretty much everything east of us is still at 70, and everything west of us is at 75," Newton said. "Some of the pressure [for the increase] came from, ‘Well, Oklahoma and Texas are driving 75, so why can’t we."
However there are also inherent benefits to increased speed limits, according to Nick Chabarria, a spokesman for AAA.
"It improves mobility; it keeps traffic flowing," he said. "When traffic is moving and the roads are flowing, less people are having to merge and get on and off and are able to maintain their speed, which is a factor in keeping crashes at a minimum."
Chabarria also says increasing the speed limit due to public demand elevates motorists’ respect for the law, as "steady speeds that follow the flow of traffic, with appropriate safety measures in place, allow for more people to be within the law."
Distracted driving, including the use of cell phones or navigation systems, is a common occurrence at any speed limit, he said, but is vital to consider when attempting to establish a correlation between increased driving speeds and the fatality rate.
"There are a number of factors that can also play a part in fatal crashes, so it’s tough to find a correlation of an increase in a speed limit to an increase in fatal crashes," Chabarria said.
In AAA’s annual Traffic Culture Safety Index, a survey of 2,700 drivers throughout the U.S. found that 96% of respondents said typing on a handheld device was extremely dangerous, but Chabarria says that at the same time, 43% acknowledged doing it in the last 30 days.
"There’s a big disparity in what people see as dangerous versus what they’re actually doing on the roadways."
The Arkansas Department of Transportation is tasked with implementing the speed limit change, but other organizations are directly impacted by the increase. Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said the department has not received an official notification of the change and troopers will be enforcing current speed limits.
"We know that they are working on some paperwork and administrative processes that have to be completed, but the state police has not received those processes or reports."
Commercial trucks are excluded from the change and must continue to follow the 70 mph speed limit. Newton, with the Arkansas Trucking Association said, "That is something we advocated for when this legislation was passed back in 2019. We were initially hesitant to support raising the speed limit, but the legislative support for increasing the speed limit for non-commercial traffic was substantial, and seeing that we were going to be unable to overcome that support we just asked that our speed limit remain the same."
Because of this differential in the speed that commercial trucks are driving and that of all other motorists, Newton explained that there are some concerns.
"When you have different types of traffic on the same road traveling at different speeds, there is obviously some opportunity for speed differential, which creates some safety concerns as well. We ultimately decided that concerns from the differential were less than concerns of the commercial traffic being permitted to drive 75," Newton said. "It’s not safe for our [commercial truck] drivers or for the motoring public for 80,000 pounds of commercial truck to be moving that fast."