Shingle: Beyond 55

Hed: On a faster track

Deck: Higher speed limits equal less leeway

By Cynthia M. Jeffries

Daily Journal

Drivers may be able to whiz along some of Northeast Mississippi's four-lane, divided highways at a higher rate of speed now, but they shouldn't expect too much leniency if they decide to cruise faster than the posted limits.

Troopers say they are strictly enforcing new speed limits that have been in effect for a little more than six weeks on some stretches of highway.

The new limits are posted along U.S. Highway 78 and sections of U.S. Highways 45, Alternate 45, 72 and 82.

When the speed limit was 55 mph, there was sort of an unwritten rule that many troopers followed, one Mississippi Highway patrol dispatcher said. Then, a trooper might look the other way if a motorist was clocked traveling at 5 or 10 mph above the posted speed limit.

"Most of the time, they wouldn't even write a ticket unless you were driving more than 70," the dispatcher said.

But now, pushing the limit by just 3 to 4 mph could mean shelling out as much as $70 to pay a ticket.

"You are not going to get much leeway with a 70 mph speed zone," said Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Letoris Shumpert.

Tickets inch up

For the most part, Shumpert said, a majority of motorists are obeying the new limits. He said there are even some who still mosey along at 55.

Since the new limit has been in place, the number of speeding tickets issued has inched up. Capt. Johnny Kerr, MHP District 4 commander in New Albany, estimated that before the new limit went into effect, a trooper may have issued 15 to 20 tickets on a weekend. He estimates a trooper probably gives out 20 to 25 tickets now.

"People were driving 75 and 80 on the four-lane when it was 55 (mph)," Kerr said. "People are still driving 75 and 80."

Kerr said it is really too early to tell what kind of effect, if any, the faster speed limits will have on the number of reported accidents, though he said he has not noticed an increase in the number of wrecks reported on federal highways since the speed limit increased.

Since March 12

Motorists have been enjoying the faster speed limit since March 12, when the Transportation Commission raised the speed limit to 70 mph on Mississippi's four-lane, divided interstates and U.S. Highway 78. U.S. 78, which stretches from Alabama to Tennessee, is the only highway in the state built to interstate specifications, meaning it has a limited number of entrances and exits.

The speed on a small section of U.S. Highway 82 is also 70 mph.

A little more than a week ago, the speed limit along sections of U.S. Highways 45, Alternate 45 and 72 was increased to 65 mph.

However, there are reduced speed zones along those routes, mostly in incorporated areas.

The state spent about $75,000 to replace 320 interstate speed limit signs. In Northeast Mississippi, it cost about $4,000 to replace the nearly 40 speed limit signs along U.S. 78. State officials spent another $2,000 to cover the "55" with a "65" on the speed limit signs for other four-lane roadways in this area.

The need for state legislators to take up the issue of speed limits came late last year when Congress returned the authority to set speed limits to the states. After 21 years, Congress did away with the 55 mph speed limit that was set in 1974 because of an oil embargo. Many states have set their speed limits at 65, 70 or 75 mph. Montana does not have a limit at all during daylight hours.

Under construction

Construction is currently under way on state Highway 6, and sections of U.S. Highway 45 and Alternate 45.

A 17-mile section on U.S. Highway 45 between Columbus and Aberdeen is expected to be completed by the fall of 1996. A 35-mile section of U.S. 45 Alternate between West Point and Shannon is expected to be completed by the fall of 1997. A 12-mile track between Wren and Shannon on U.S. Highway 45 is expected to be completed by the next spring.

And the four-laning of state Highway 6 should be ready for travelers by this fall.

The speed limit is expected to be posted at 65 mph on those four-lane, divided roadways once they are completed and opened, said Paul Swindoll, district engineer with the Northern District of the Mississippi Highway Department.

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