Not so fast! Lawmakers pump the brakes on proposal to raise speed limit

Committee approves long-sought bill allowing seat belt usage admissibility in court

By: - January 24, 2024 6:45 am

Will Hoosier drivers be able to step on that gas pedal a little harder? (Oklahoma Department of Transportation)

Hoosiers won’t soon be zooming down their highways at a legal 75 miles per hour.

A House roads committee on Tuesday heard legislation that would boost the limit up from the current 70 miles per hour, but won’t advance it — for now. It did, however, move long-sought legislation allowing jurors to know when someone in a car crash wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

“We all know this isn’t going to get a vote today, and that’s okay,” Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, said of his House Bill 1308. “… I have carried issues that have taken me 10 years to get done the right way.”

Smaltz said he wanted to start the conversation because Indiana’s roads are in “excellent condition” thanks to recent funding increases.

Rep. Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn, introduces his bill raising speed limits on highways on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

He also said advancements in vehicle technology — made since Indiana raised the speed limit from 65 to 70 miles per hour in 2005 — have improved safety.

And he read off a list of state highway fatality rates to note that few of the states with 75 mile-per-hour maximums are among the states with the deadliest roads.

Witnesses, however, said the change could cost lives.

The bill would raise speeds on all federal highways outside urbanized areas with more than 50,000 residents and on highways for which the Indiana Finance Authority is responsible.

The higher speed limit on the Indiana Toll Road would save drivers going from Ohio to Illinois less than nine minutes, according to its operator, the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company.

“Those nine minutes would certainly — undoubtedly — escalate the risks,” Operations Director Christopher Norvell said.

Norvell said that linear increases in speed exponentially hike crash lethality.

He told the committee that the Toll Road wanted to see crash data, “detailed” engineering studies and road geometry statistics to ensure that higher speeds wouldn’t lead to more crashes or make them more severe.

The bill would increase the speed limit only for buses and vehicles weighing under 26,000 pounds. Asked if keeping heavier vehicles like semi-trailers at 65 miles per hour would aid safety, Norvell said it could actually hurt. 

When trucks are required to go slower than cars, he said, car drivers try to get around them — and can cause more crashes. The risks are higher when the speed difference is larger; the bill would bring the differential from five to 10 miles per hours.

Other witnesses said parts of Indiana’s highways aren’t meant for such speeds.

Christopher Norvell of the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company testifies against a highway speed limit boost on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“There are curves on the interstate system that are not designed for 75 miles per hour, so special signing would be necessary to account for those locations,” said Andrea Zimmerman, deputy chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation.

She said the agency has “significant concerns” with the bill.

Toby Randolph, a civil engineer representing the Hoosier chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, said engineers design roads around an intended speed — usually five miles above the posted speed limit.

“All aspects of that roadway are based on (speed): everything from horizontal curves, vertical curves, your stopping sight distance, your cross slope …, clear zones,” Randolph said.

Smaltz said he was “pleased” to learn that that roads are typically designed speeds five miles per hour above the posted limit because it means “they’re already designed for 75.”

But, he acknowledged, “The other side of that argument is, ‘What’s that speed band? Who’s going to go above 75 now?'”

Chair Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, confirmed he wouldn’t let the bill through his committee this session.

“I think it’s a little premature,” he told the Capital Chronicle. “I think it’s good to have those conversations and see what’s good, see what’s bad.”

Pressel said there weren’t yet concrete plans to consider the idea over the interim — legislative leaders assign the topics — or to entertain it next session.

Seat belts in court: try, try, try again?

Under current law, Hoosier jurors deliberating on vehicle crash cases aren’t allowed to know whether someone involved wasn’t wearing a seat belt – even if a decision to go un-belted caused or contributed to injuries. Evidence of non-use could lead the party that caused the crash to pay less in damages.

Different lawmakers have tried and failed for decades to make evidence of seat belt usage admissible in civil court – or even to get the idea through a committee.

That could change, after a panel on Tuesday unanimously advanced legislation allowing that evidence.

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, in committee on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Pressel, who authored House Bill 1090, said he took up the cause because he thought juries “need to have all the information.”

The committee amended the bill to specify that the changes don’t apply to children under 15 years old and to edit a requirement that the evidence “must be admitted” to “may be admitted.”

The updated version of the bill says the defendant has the burden to prove the other party wasn’t wearing a seat belt and that using one would’ve reduced injuries.

Warren Mathies, of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association, said the group supported the amendment but still had concerns about the bill. He suggested adding a percentage cap on the reduction in damages.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, attempted to get similar language through the Senate’s lawyer-heavy judiciary committee last session. That panel narrowly killed his bill after several hours of debate over the legal nuances and implications.

Other attempts to change the law didn’t get committee votes in at least the four years prior to Gaskill’s effort. Similar bills failed multiple times before then. One passed out of both chambers in 2005, for example, but then-Gov. Mitch Daniels vetoed it.

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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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