The next time you drive to Reno that “80” sign you see along the freeway may not be designating Interstate 80, it may be telling you the speed limit is now 80 mph.
We were glad to see the Nevada Department of Transportation raise the limit on this long and lonesome stretch of road, even though it comes nearly four years after Utah did the same thing. While motorists in western Nevada and eastern Utah will be flying along the pavement, speeds through the Elko area remain stalled at 75 mph.
NDOT officials said they didn’t raise the limit in this part of the state because of the changes in elevation that make for irregular speeds, particularly for trucks carrying heavy loads. Having cars drive 80 mph while other traffic might be moving at only half that speed is considered a potential safety concern.
For Elko residents, that means only half of the trip to Reno will be faster than it was before. But half is better than nothing, and we can thank Republican Don Gustavson of Sparks for sponsoring the bill in 2015 that allowed for the higher speeds.
Gustavson testified that the higher limits would make driving safer in Nevada’s outback, because more drivers would be in compliance.
“Some might fear that if speeds are posted at 80 miles per hour, then everybody will drive at 90 miles per hour; however, a three-year traffic study conducted by government agencies in Utah concluded that average speeds increased just 2 miles per hour, while accidents decreased 11 percent in one corridor and 20 percent in another,” Gustavson said.
While Utah fatalities have risen since then, the reasons cited are mainly distracted, drowsy or aggressive drivers, not speed-related.
When you live in a place where the nearest cities are more than a hundred miles away, faster speed limits can improve the quality of life.
“In Elko, the only place you can go if you want to get on a plane is to Salt Lake City,” Elko lobbyist Janine Hansen testified in support of the legislation. “You have to drive everywhere else, which takes a lot of time.”
Thankfully the measure passed, despite opposition from NDOT, the Nevada Highway Patrol and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.
While 80 mph may seem fast to some, Nevadans who are getting up in age might remember a time when the state had no speed limit at all. Drivers here and in Montana could put the pedal to the metal without getting pulled over, until the federal government enacted a nationwide speed limit of 55 mph in response to the 1973 oil crisis.
The move put states like Nevada in culture shock. Driving 55 seemed like a snail’s pace compared with the blazing speeds that everyone was comfortable with. How dare the federal government impose such a restriction? The “why” was to reduce oil consumption but the “how” was by threatening to withhold highway maintenance money from states that did not cooperate.
The mid-1970s through mid-1980s was a slow decade.
By 1987 the limit was raised to 65 mph, and it has been creeping up from there, particularly in sparsely populated western states. Texas even has one stretch of road that was raised to 85 mph.
Who knows where it will end? For now, driving through Elko will seem like time travel to motorists who approach from east or west under the 80 mph limits.
We hope drivers not only slow down in this part of the state, but stop and explore Elko and the surrounding area.
Things move slower here, so you might as well stop and enjoy it.