Motorists may soon be able to drive faster than ever on some Kansas highways, and they won't get hit with a big fine if they're not wearing a seat belt, either.
The Kansas Legislature on Friday agreed to raise the speed limit to 75 mph on more than 1,000 miles of separated, multi-lane highways.
The same measure also requires cities to charge no more than $10 for a seat-belt violation — one of the lowest of its kind in the nation.
A number of cities across the state have been charging anywhere from $30 to more than $100 for a seat-belt violation. Lenexa charges $60, including court costs, while Wichita, Shawnee, Olathe and Leawood have $30 fines for a belt violation.
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The bill now goes to Gov. Sam Brownback after passing the Senate 23-14 and the House 107-13.
There was no indication whether Brownback would sign the bill. The Kansas Highway Department is neutral on the legislation. The speed limit in Kansas has been 70 mph since 1996.
Critics contended the bill would lead to more highway deaths, an ironic twist since new statistics released Friday showed that national highway fatalities last year were at their lowest level since 1949.
"Studies have shown that the higher the speed limit, the more deaths and accidents we're going to have," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who opposed the increase.
The speed-limit proposal was pushed by state Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park. Kleeb hopes increasing speed limits will enhance economic development because state highways would become more attractive to vacation travelers and freight haulers.
Kleeb said Kansas was among only a handful of western states with a 70 mph speed limit on highways in vast rural areas that aren't congested.
He pointed out that it will be up to the Transportation Department to decide where the speed limit will be increased. He suspected that most of the roads where the speed limit might rise to 75 mph will be in rural Kansas.
"You are going to see plenty of four-lane highways in Kansas that will not end up being 75 mph," Kleeb predicted.
Kleeb wasn't convinced that raising the speed limit by 5 mph would lead to a dramatic increase in highway deaths. Some research suggests there isn't a firm correlation between increased speed and more crashes, Kleeb said.
However, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009 found a 3.2 percent increase in roadway deaths attributed to increased speed limits in the 10 years after Congress repealed a federal speed limit. The study blamed about 12,500 deaths on higher speeds.
The limits on seat belt fines came about because lawmakers were angry that some cities used their home-rule powers to impose higher fines — even though a new primary seat-belt law said fines should not exceed $5 until this summer, when it increases to $10.
Kansas passed the new primary seat belt law to secure $11 million in federal funds. But lawmakers agreed to do so only if fines were kept at a nominal amount.
The primary law allows police to pull drivers over for not wearing a seat belt, even without another traffic infraction.
State Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, voted against the bill because of the provision for seat belt fines. He argued that the fines need to be higher than $5 or $10 for the law to be effective.
"The fine has to be at least $40 or it does no good," Smith said.