A Southern Oregon legislator hopes to raise the interstate speed limit by at least 5 mph, saying faster speeds would benefit commerce statewide.

A Southern Oregon legislator hopes to raise the interstate speed limit by at least 5 mph, saying faster speeds would benefit commerce statewide.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, has joined Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, in a push to increase the speed limit to at least 70 mph for noncommercial vehicles and 60 mph for semitrucks and other commercial traffic.

They've proposed an amendment to a House transportation bill (HB 3150) that would give the Oregon Transportation Safety Division the authority to raise the limit to a maximum 75 mph at its discretion. Atkinson said he hopes OTSD will meet in the middle with an increase of 5 mph.

Atkinson, who is on the state committee for Business, Transportation and Economic Development, said raising the speed limit would streamline traffic on the interstates.

Though he said his main focus as a senator has been working to reduce capital gains taxes, he keeps hearing from constituents about Oregon's outdated speed limit.

"Oregon is the slowest state west of the Mississippi," Atkinson said, adding 19 of the 24 states — except Alaska and Hawaii — have designated speed limits of at least 70.

He said the legislation would have a positive effect on highway commerce and make delivering goods more efficient.

"If you look at Southern Oregon, our industrial hub is trucks," Atkinson said. "Commerce travels on speed. The faster (the speed limit), the more commerce that can be moved."

Atkinson said he expects an uphill battle in getting the amendment passed. Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed similar legislation in his first stint as governor, and some state traffic agencies oppose raising the speed limit because of safety reasons.

AAA officials said they haven't seen the amendment yet and haven't taken a stand on the issue.

"As far as this particular bill, we haven't seen the language," said Marie Dodds, AAA Oregon public affairs director. "We're not taking sides yet. At this point, it's really too early in the process to sound the alarms."

Still, she added, legislation calling to increase the speed limit is generally a safety concern.

"Higher speeds do often result in more significant crashes," Dodds said. "That is something that is proven in study after study after study."

Troy Costales, Oregon Transportation Safety Division administrator, said states that have raised their limits above 65 have seen an increase in vehicle-related fatalities across the board.

"Based on other states' experiences, if Oregon goes above 65, (it) would likely experience somewhere between two and 11 fatal injuries (a year) and an additional 30 to 90 serious injuries," Costales said.

He said motorists often drive faster than the speed limit, no matter how much it increases.

U.S. crash data from 2009 shows that of the 22 states in the lower 48 west of the Mississippi, Oregon ranks the ninth lowest for traffic crash fatalities at 377. Utah, a state that posts speed limits of 80 on some interstate sections, saw 244 based on the same data. Oregon was still far below the national average.

Jonathan Adkins, communications director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said gas mileage also could be affected if speed limits were raised. A 2008 U.S. Department of Energy study, which Adkins said applies to 2011 because of the recent increase in gas prices, said speed increases of 5 mph over 60 are similar to paying an additional 20 cents per gallon of gas.

Atkinson disagreed with both the safety and economic arguments.

"I think those arguments made absolutely perfect sense in 1979," he said. "Today's cars are fuel-efficient, are loaded with airbags. An increase of five miles an hour has not shown any drastic change in highway statistics."

Ryan Pfeil is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.