A stretch of Texas highway may soon be the first road in the country to have a posted 85 mph speed limit. Transportation officials are testing a new 41-mile segment of the highway to see whether it would be safe to post the state’s first 85 mph speed limit.
Texas State Highway 130 will run between San Antonio and Austin with the aim of taking traffic loads off of Interstate 35, which was named the fourth most congested road in the state by the Texas Department of Transportation last year. A majority of the new Highway has been completed and speed limits are posted at 80 mph. The remaining section is set to open before the end of this year and will be used for speed studies to determine what speed limit will be posted.
Texas lawmakers paved the way for higher speed limits when the legislature passed a law last year that allowed speed limits of up to 85 mph on newly constructed highways that were determined to be safe enough to allow such speeds. The idea behind the new law is that if future highways are engineered for safe travel at a higher speed, then the legal speed limit should be raised to reflect this capability.
Currently, Texas and Utah are the only states with speed limits of 80 mph. If the 85 mph speed limit is approved, it will be the fastest posted maximum in the Western Hemisphere.
This issue has brought up an old debate that began before the federally mandated 55 mph speed limit was approved in 1974. Critics of the higher speed limit believe that increased speeds will lead to more fatal accidents. However, the proponents of the higher speed limit believe that it will make the roads safer by encouraging everyone to drive a uniform speed.
Critics of the higher speed limit worry that because most drivers exceed the posted speed limit if the speed is increased to 85 mph, most drivers will actually be driving at speeds closer to 100. This higher speed combined with the poor condition of many U.S. highways, distracted drivers and the general ignorance of vehicle maintenance will result in more accidents. And at these higher speeds, accidents will be substantially worse and will include more fatalities.
These critics look to the past to support their argument. Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that when the national speed limit was set at 55 in 1973, the county saw decreases in road deaths. But the country saw this number increase when the speed limit was raised to 65 on some rural interstates in the late 1980s and again when it was abolished altogether in the mid-1990s. A 2009 study into the long-term effects of the 1995 repeal found a 3 percent increase in fatalities on all road types and a 9 percent increase on rural interstates
On the other side, proponents argue that roads are safer when all cars are traveling at the same speed. They believe many highway speed limits are set too low for the prevailing speed of traffic and this causes a greater discrepancy between the speeds the cars are traveling. They also contend that modern cars are faster, more fuel-efficient, safer and more nimble than their counterparts of decades past and this should play a factor when setting speed limits.
According to a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, it is a common misconception that when speed limits increase, drivers automatically compensate and go faster. They point to speed studies that have shown that when speed limits are set appropriately, travel speeds don’t change all that much and the majority of drivers will not go faster than what they feel is comfortable and safe regardless of the speed limit.
Finally, proponents argue that studies that show an increase in fatalities since the repeal of the national speed limit do not take into account the increased number of drivers on the road and the increased number of miles driven per person. They instead point to the fact that highway fatality rates have been decreasing for decades. They also point to a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, that found that the majority of speed limits are posed below the average speed of traffic and lowering speed limits below the 50th percentile does not reduce accidents, but does significantly increase driver violations of the speed limit. Conversely, raising the posted speed limits did not increase speeds or accidents.
State transportation officials caution they have made no decisions yet on the 85 mph speed limit in Texas. Clearly more time is needed for research and to ensure the safety of all drivers.