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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Higher Speed Limits Coming Soon To Oregon

Thanks to a measure approved by Oregon lawmakers last summer, you’ll soon be able to legally drive faster on more than 1,500 miles of highways in Oregon. But while the bill sped through the legislature fairly quickly, there's a lot to be done before Oregon drivers can speed up.

If you drive down Interstate 84 just east of The Dalles with the cruise control set at 65 mph you will likely get passed quite a few times by other vehicles. Nevertheless, if you want to follow the law, you need to stay at 65 -- until March 1.

That’s when the speed limit on that section of interstate jumps up a notch to 70 mph. The speed limit on many other highways will go from 55 to 65 mph. All of the increased speeds are east of the Cascades.

"We think we can do this very seamlessly, so that the old signs will come down and the new signs will come up very quickly, ” Travis Brouwer of the Oregon Department of Transportation said.

Brouwer said ODOT crews will make sure the new signs remain under wraps until the new speed limit kicks in. And he said ODOT will try hard to make sure there isn’t a mix of old and new signs visible at once.

"That would be bad for motorists, bad for safety if people didn't know what the speed limit really was,” Brouwer said.

Balancing safety and mobility

But Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety said the speed limit increase itself is ” a significant safety problem."

Rader points to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers documented a three percent increase in speed related fatalities on roads with raised speed limits. Rader said Oregon is taking a risk by raising its limit.

"The only safe speed limit is zero,” he said. “So you have to figure out what is the balance between safety and mobility."

Increased mobility was one of the main arguments by supporters of the higher limit. Until the new law takes effect, Oregon has the lowest interstate speed limit in the continental United States west of Pennsylvania.

Republican State Representative Cliff Bentz testified in Salem last year that the lower speed limits help isolate people in rural eastern Oregon, where he's from.

"To the extent that we can increase the speed without increasing danger, we should do so,” Bentz said. “Because it will make our state closer."

The surprisingly high cost of higher limits

To prepare for the higher limits, ODOT is making nearly 400 new speed limit signs. The agency said these signs cost the state about $1,700 apiece.

Brouwer said people are often surprised at how expensive those things are.

"If you've ever actually stood next to a speed limit sign, they are huge,” he said. “And if you tried to pick one up, they are very heavy. They are made out of very thick, heavy material, because if one of them gets clipped by a semi, you don't want the whole thing to splinter off into little pieces."

Those sign-makers could have even more work ahead of them. Lawmakers will consider a bill in February to raise the speed limit on 25 miles of state highway that they said they forgot to include the first time around.