UDOT testing 2 80 mph zones

I-15 » Lawmaker's Corvette wasn't getting much of a workout.
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Next time you're day-dreaming on this lost freeway and the junipers blur into the rabbit brush mile after mile after -- Where ARE we? -- here's a little game you can try.

Engage the cruise control. Throttle up to 80 mph. Watch who blows past you in the left lane.

You'll be the one obeying Utah's newest -- and the Intermountain West's highest -- speed limit.

The state is testing two rural Interstate 15 stretches to see if it is safe to shorten the numbing, 75 mph trek from the Wasatch Front to Utah's Dixie. If it works, supporters would like the faster zone to stretch some 170 miles from Nephi to Cedar City.

From the north, you'll hit the first 80 mph sign at Mills Junction near the crest of a brushy swell 19 miles north of Scipio. You'll maneuver to pass the next semi as you surge up the hill, but the big rig picks up steam quickly on the downhill. Drop back into the right lane unless you want those seniors in the Lexus to pass you on the right.

Ease off the pedal as you head back uphill out of Scipio, where the first test strip ends. You'll be the one who notices the limit is 75 mph again. And that's when the guy in the Camaro from Cheyenne flies past you while yakking on his cell phone.

Eighty miles per hour seems like 85. And no wonder: The Utah Department of Transportation surveyed this strand of steppe before starting the experiment around Christmas and learned that the average speed was 83 mph even before the new signs went up.

Some motorists get too used to the new speed, according to Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Gordon Mortensen. He was parked watching traffic in Fillmore on Thursday and said drivers aren't slowing down between there and Scipio, the undulating expanse that separates the two test zones. It's the same on the south end, where the limit reverts to 75 near Kanosh. People keep speeding past Kanosh and into Beaver County, Mortensen said.

"I talked to the [troopers] down in Beaver yesterday and they say everyone they pull over says, 'The speed limit's 80.' "

The 19- and 18-mile tests began Dec. 24 and Jan. 7, respectively. Neither had experienced a wreck by late this week, Mortensen said.

Earlier studies have shown a link between speed and fatalities. When Texas boosted its speed limit from 65 to 70 in 1996, the Texas Transportation Institute charted a 28 percent jump in fatal crashes on rural divided highways.

Utah's latest I-15 speed test, set in motion by then-state Sen. Bill Hickman, is meant to ease the boredom that he and his St. George constituents endured on road trips to Salt Lake City. His Corvette wasn't getting much of a workout.

"It idles at 80," Hickman said Friday.

He hopes the tests show motorists won't creep up even faster if they're allowed to zip along at 80.

"I just want to make sure that people aren't exposed to getting a speeding ticket if they're driving 80," Hickman said. "If they're going 90, they should get one."

Eighty seems a tad high for Fort Worth, Texas, trucker Steve Ebarb. When he stopped to walk his Scottish terrier and miniature schnauzer at a rest area Thursday, it hadn't registered that he had just driven through an 80 mph zone. He just knew everyone was flying past him because his truck's governor tops out at 62 mph.

"They run up on the trucks real fast," he said. "In the winter months, 80 is kind of fast, even out here. You never know when you're going to hit some black ice."

It's nothing to Philip and Megan Coughlin, though. They grew up in Montana in the days when "reasonable and prudent" was the only speed limit there, back in the 1990s. On Thursday, they were moving to Los Angeles from Belgrade, Mont., in a Volkswagen New Beetle and a Jeep Cherokee, but couldn't take advantage of the higher limits. Philip was slowed by a U-Haul trailer behind the Jeep.

"If we could, we would," Megan said. "It's actually kind of refreshing because it's so wide open out here. It's a good place to make up time."

Scott Hargett could, and did, in his Nissan Sentra, even before he realized the limits had changed. "We passed a cop [in traffic] going 82 or 83, and he didn't seem to mind," the Salt Laker said after stopping for gas on his way to Las Vegas.

The tests will last at least until UDOT can gather enough data to make a recommendation to the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee later this year.


80 mph zones

Testing higher limits » An 80 mph speed limit is being studied on two stretches of Interstate 15.