By John Toole
---- — The state Highway Safety Agency is opposing three bills before the Legislature that would raise speed limits on New Hampshire highways.
The House is slated to take up the bills Wednesday.
The Transportation Committee is recommending the House kill two of the bills.
One, House Bill 289, would increase the Interstate speed limit to 70 mph. The other, HB 291, would increase the speed limit there to 75 mph.
The panel recommended their defeat on lopsided, 14-1, votes.
Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Nashua, in a written report for the committee to the House, said the majority felt an increased speed limit would decrease traffic safety.
The third bill, HB 146, would increase the speed limit on Interstate 93 from Canterbury to the Vermont border from 65 to 70 mph.
The House panel is recommending passage of that bill, 10-4.
“Which is crazy to me,” Highway Safety Agency coordinator Peter Thomson said. “If you increase it to 70 mph, people will be going 75 mph to 80 mph. I can’t quite fathom it.”
Thomson wants the Legislature to kill all three bills before more people are killed on the state’s highways.
“We’re doing so well with fatalities,” Thomson said.
Last year’s 105 deaths ranked among the lowest ever for the state, though a little higher than the 90 from 2011. Thomson said that was the lowest mark in 50 years.
“We’ve made huge strides the last two years,” Thomson said.
Rep. Brian Chirichiello, R-Derry, is a member of the committee who shares Thomson’s concern about highway safety.
“I did not support any of those three bills,” Chirichiello said.
“My reasoning is that living in Derry, off Exits four and five in Londonderry, we see accidents constantly on I-93,” he said. “Adding speed is not going to help matters.”
State police estimate the average speed on I-93 is 82 mph, which is 17 to 27 mph over the posted limits of 55 mph in built-up areas and 65 mph in rural areas.
They have told Thomson there are times on flat stretches of I-89, from Concord to Hanover, where they catch drivers going 100 mph in 65-mph zones.
A double motorcycle highway fatality last year in New Hampshire resulted, in part, from the driver going 120 mph, he said.
“The more you speed, the more you are going to go off the road,” Thomson said.
Rep. Brian Rhodes, D-Nashua, said the proposed I-93 increase from Canterbury to Vermont would not apply to the hilly, curvy roadway through Franconia Notch.
Otherwise, the highway is suited to the increase, Rhodes told the House.
Rhodes, a member of the Transportation Committee, wrote the report.
“This is a rural section of the Interstate that has been constructed to support a speed limit of 70 mph,” Rhodes wrote. “National statistics have not produced an increase in accident rates due to limits being increased by 5 mph.”
Thomson disagrees over the potential risk to drivers and hopes the House – or the Senate – will see things differently.
“I’d hope this won’t go through,” he said.
I-93 from Canterbury to Vermont may be lightly traveled through the week, but not so at other times, he said.
“The weekend is a whole different story,” Thomson said. “On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it’s big.”
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, D-Manchester, the prime sponsor of HB 289 and 291, is renewing his efforts to increase the speed limit. He first tried 16 years ago.
“Any law which is broken by three out of four people on a regular basis cannot possibly be a good law. It breeds lack of respect for other laws,” Vaillancourt posted on his blog two years ago. “People are telling us with their pedal to the metal that 65 is not a reasonable speed.”