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Touched by trooper’s death, Gov. Scott pledges veto for speed limit hike

By John Kennedy - Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau

Not so fast, Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday that he will veto a bill that could have increased speed limits in some highway stretches to 75 mph.

“I’ve been to too many law enforcement funerals,” Scott said.

The governor said he’s heard fierce opposition from law enforcement officials to the speed limit proposal, including an appeal from Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Tod Cloud, who last week told him it “wasn’t a bright idea.”

Cloud was among the speakers at the funeral of Trooper Chelsea Richard, killed May 3 on Interstate 75 near Ocala while investigating an accident.

“I’m going to stand with law enforcement,” Scott said after a Cabinet meeting. “I want everybody to stay safe. I don’t want anybody to be injured, so I’m going to veto that bill.”

Speed apparently didn’t play a role in the accident that killed Richard and two other motorists. But Scott said he was touched by the case — and the 4-year-old son Richard leaves behind.

Scott acknowledged, though, “There’s times I’d like to go faster.”

Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, who fought the measure (SB 392) in the House and later wrote Scott urging a veto, hailed the decision.

“We needed the governor for some parental guidance here,” Slosberg said.

The legislation authorized the Florida Department of Transportation to conduct traffic and engineering studies to determine which stretches of highway could be boosted by 5 mph from the current 70 mph limit in place since 1996.

Supporters said they don’t envision speed limits rising on Interstate 95 in South Florida. But less densely traveled parts of I-95, Florida’s Turnpike, Interstate 4, Interstate 10 and similar limited access highways could qualify, they said.

The legislation also was aimed at allowing limits on some mostly rural, divided highways rise from 65 mph to 70 mph. Other state roads now subject to 60 mph limits could also rise by 5 mph.

“It’s hard to divorce emotion from the factual reality,” said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, a sponsor of the measure. “I still don’t think increasing the speed limit by 5 mph would increase highway fatalities. Statistics show that.”

Supporters of the higher limits point out that since 1996, when Florida jumped to its current standard from 65 mph, fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles have steadily declined, studies show.

Florida highway statistics show an 11 percent decline in crashes across the state between 2007 and 2011, and a 25.5 percent drop in fatalities in that period.

But opponents also pointed to statistics.

In a letter to Scott calling for him to veto the measure, AAA Auto Club South cited a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that found in 2012, one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities occurred in speed-related crashes.

A majority of the 16 states with speed limits above 70 mph also are reporting speed-fatality rates higher than the national average, said AAA, which has 3.3 million members in Florida.

In a legislative session marked by the passage of such landmark measures as one legalizing a form of medical marijuana and another granting instate tuition to undocumented immigrants, the speed limit bill managed to generate a noteworthy level of contention.

It was approved by the state House in the closest vote of the 2014 session, clearing the chamber 58-56, following heated statements from opponents. The Senate was an easier sell, where the bill was approved 27-11.

Clemens said he’ll bring the idea back before lawmakers next year.

“Speed limits should be set by traffic engineers and not politicians,” Clemens said. “And that’s what this bill did.”

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