North Dakota bills would raise highway speed limit, tighten seat belt laws

The familiar proposals have long divided libertarian-leaning lawmakers and their safety-minded colleagues.

A stretch of Interstate 29 south of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area is pictured in 2020.
David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — The two chambers of the North Dakota Legislature have sent mixed messages to drivers this week: hit the gas and buckle up.

The House of Representatives voted 65-29 on Tuesday, Feb. 7, to pass House Bill 1475, which would raise the speed limit on multi-lane highways from 75 mph to 80 mph.

Across the hall, the Senate approved Senate Bill 2362 in a 31-14 vote on Monday. The legislation would allow police to pull over a vehicle if the driver or any passengers are not wearing seat belts.

Each bill will now head to the opposite chamber.

The familiar proposals have long divided libertarian-leaning lawmakers and their safety-minded colleagues.


Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, and other supporters of raising the speed limit on Interstates 29 and 94 say it would save drivers time and reduce their likelihood of getting pulled over.

Koppelman, who has sponsored failed bills to increase the speed limit three other times, noted in a hearing last month that several neighboring states, including South Dakota and Montana, have set top speed limits at 80 mph. The bill still would allow cities to establish lower speed limits when highways run through city limits, Koppelman added.

North Dakota Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, testifies on a bill at the state Capitol on Jan. 24, 2023.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

The state Department of Transportation didn’t explicitly oppose the bill at last month’s hearing, but Deputy Director for Engineering Matt Linneman told lawmakers there are curvy and urban patches of I-29 and I-94 that cannot accommodate an 80 mph speed limit. Koppelman said the department would retain the ability to limit speed in those sections of road.

Linneman and the state Highway Patrol asked lawmakers to add a 40 mph minimum speed limit to the bill to “mitigate the unsafe driving conditions caused by large speed differentials.” The House Transportation Committee did not approve the proposed amendment.

SB 2362, sponsored by Sen. Dean Rummel, R-Dickinson, is the latest in a series of efforts to put a "primary enforcement" seat belt law in place. The legislation also would require all passengers to wear a seat belt, rather than just front-seat passengers.

North Dakota currently has a secondary enforcement law, which means drivers over 18 can't be pulled over solely for not wearing a seat belt. They can be issued a ticket for being unbuckled, but only if an officer pulls them over for a separate offense.

Thirty-four other states have a primary enforcement seat belt law, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Rummel echoed public safety advocates in noting that instituting a primary enforcement law encourages drivers to buckle up, which reduces traffic deaths.


Department of Transportation Director Ron Henke testified last week that more than half of North Dakota’s traffic deaths from 2017-2021 came in unbelted drivers and passengers. Only about 81% of drivers in the state wear seat belts, compared to a national rate of 90%, Henke said.

“We know that seat belts save lives. They are the single most effective traffic safety device to prevent death and injury in a motor vehicle crash, but all drivers and passengers must wear them for them to be effective,” Henke said.

The House has killed bills that would have increased seat belt enforcement several times in the last decade. Opponents of the legislation argue North Dakotans should have the personal freedom to reject the safety feature. No legislators spoke against the bill Monday.

Lawmakers approved the current law on the books in 1993, but the rule was mostly intended to solve the enforcement issue of officers pulling over vehicles for seat belt violations only to discover passengers were wearing lap belts. All cars sold in the U.S. are now required by regulators to have shoulder belts.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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