FORTY MILE DESERT — Of all the things you can do legally in Nevada but not most other places, driving 80 mph lately hasn’t been one of them.
That changed this week when new speed-limit signs started popping up in place of 75 mph markers on a stretch of the state’s main east-west highway.
Nevada joins a handful of other states — South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah — in allowing people to drive 80 mph in certain, mostly rural areas. The highest speed limit in the U.S. is 85 mph on a Texas toll road from Austin to San Antonio.
WHERE DOES NEVADA’S NEW LIMIT APPLY?
The higher speed is on 130 miles of Interstate 80 in the high desert, from 40 miles east of Reno to the rural town of Winnemucca.
Parts of Nevada’s colorful past and present dot the route, which runs along a trail used by pioneers bound for the Gold Rush in the 1840s. A state historical sign describes the Forty Mile Desert as a “barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland,” while an 1850 survey there counted the remains of about 5,000 horses, 3,750 cattle, 1,060 mules and 950 graves.
Back then, it took wagon trains days to cover the 40 miles. Now motorists can do it in a half-hour.
Westbound toward Reno, the speed limit drops to 65 mph between an industrial park that houses Tesla’s electric car battery plant and the infamous Mustang Ranch brothel, where legal prostitution has been regulated since 1971.
It remains 65 mph through the downtown casino district, where recreational marijuana goes on sale at nearby dispensaries July 1.
Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the new maximum into law 18 months ago, but highway engineers spent the past year examining places safe enough to go that fast. They’re considering future additions, but for now I-80 is it.
Dr. Alistair Chapman, a Las Vegas trauma surgeon, was among those who voiced concerns about accidents and urged lawmakers in 2015 to “put the brakes on this bill.”
But Chad Dornsife of the National Motorists Association said fatalities didn’t spike when other states raised the limit, partly because drivers spend less time on the road. “Fatigue is the biggest killer, not speed,” he said.
Nevada Highway Patrol and transportation officials originally opposed the change but came around after studies showed current travel averaging 78 to 80 mph.
Not much so far.
“Most of the people out here are probably doing 80 already,” said Tim Furlong, a Transportation Department supervisor who helped install the first signs this week.
Adrian Elena, an independent coast-to-coast truck driver from Sacramento, said it’s good to have the option to drive 80 mph even though he rarely does because it’s hard on his engine.
Law officers, meanwhile, say those who violate the new limit should expect a ticket, not a warning.
“There’s this misconception that people think it’s OK to go 5 mph over the speed limit, whatever it is,” Trooper Dan Gordon said. “The speed limit is the speed limit — 80 is 80.”
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