Highway Safety for Sale in Texas

Leave it to Texas. The Lone Star State just raised the speed limit on a toll road between San Antonio and Austin to 85 miles per hour, giving it the highest legal driving speed in the country.

Texas introduces the 85 mph speed limit. Photo: ##http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/11/us/texas-raising-speed-limit-for-title-of-fastest-in-the-land.html##New York Times##

Texas transportation officials, for their part, have been nonchalant. Veronica Beyer, a department spokeswoman, told the New York Times,”tests have shown the designated speed is a safe one.” In signing a legislative precursor to the law in 2006, State Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said, “it’ll be the Texas autobahn,” according to the paper.

But the move has raised eyebrows in the insurance industry. And no one’s exactly sure how motorists will react, although the FHWA allows states to set their own speed limits. Prior to last month, both Texas and Utah had the country’s fastest roads, with posted speed limits of up to 80 miles per hour.

“People tend to choose a speed at which they don’t think they’re likely to get a ticket. In most places that’s 5-10 mph over the speed limit,” Russ Rader, an Insurance Institute spokesman, told the Indianapolis Star. “But it’s hard to know when you get up to those extreme speeds what people are going to do.”

It seems logical to conclude that the change will result in more collisions and deaths. A 1999 report [PDF] by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that highway deaths increased 15 percent when states raise their speed limits.

“Drivers will think they can go 90 or 95 and will be unlikely to survive a crash at that speed,” Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, told the Indianapolis Star.

According to the Texas Tribune, the state of Texas received a $100 million payment from the operator of the toll road for raising the speed limit to 85. The state would only have won $65 million if the speed were 80. But what’s a few lives lost against tens of millions of dollars, right?

New, ever-higher speed limits are a trend of sorts, the Star reports. Since 2005, seven states — Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia — raised speed limits on at least some roads. The motivation seems to stem from the shortage of funds for infrastructure. As states become increasingly reliant on toll roads as a source of revenue, high speed limits are seen as an attractive amenity to lure paying customers.

Ohio recently raised the speed limit on its turnpike, trying to attract truckers from a nearby untolled state route. According to the Plain Dealer, the road saw a 5.6 percent increase in collisions the following year. The move was successful in luring new trucks onto the road, however. The paper reports their numbers rose 2.5 percent over the same period.

Correction: This article originally erroneously stated that Texas has the second-highest traffic fatality rate in the country. It has the second-highest total number of fatalities. It is also the second largest state by population.

  • keenplanner

    Global warming?  That’s for those folks down on the coast to worry about.  

  • Peter Mott

    According to the pdf, the traffic fatality RATE in Texas in 2009 was 1.3 deaths per million miles traveled. That is lower than Alaska (1.5), Arizona (1.8), Idaho (1.5), Kentucky (1.7), Louisiana (1.8), Mississippi (1.7), Montana (2.0), New Mexico (1.4), North Dakota (1.7), Oklahoma (1.6), South Carolina (1.8), South Dakota (1.4), Tennessee (1.4), and Wyoming (1.4). Clearly Texas does not have a particularly high traffic fatality rate.

  • Circle Thomas

    What nonsense. The Insurance Institute has been pushing for years that higher speed limits lead to more deaths, without having anything in the way to prove that. Texas already had the highest speed limits in the land, yet the death rate was lower than many other states–and this, despite the overwhelming number of pick-up trucks, which are far less stable at speed and therefore inherently more likely to crash as it is. The reason is simple–the Lone Star state is filled with long, straight highways barren of wildlife hazards like you might find in a Montana, and with dozens and dozens of miles even between off-ramps and onramps. Sometimes, it’s pretty clear that the writers at Streets Blog have never actually bothered to drive outside of the urban areas out west to see that there’s a lot of country that’s flyover for a reason.

  • Angie Schmitt

    Sorry. Poorly worded. I changed.

  • Peter. Sorry that was poorly worded. I changed it. Texas has the second highest number of total traffic fatalities. 

  • I agree with the concern over this, but Peter is right. Clearly, Texas has the higher TOTAL number of traffic deaths in the nation because it is the second most populous state in the nation. It doesn’t serve anyone to throw in a fact like that to support your position. 

  • Morris Zapp

    Fifteenth out of 50 is higher than most, and 1.3 is higher than the overall U.S. rate of 1.1.

    Anyone have data showing that Texas drivers have more pick-up trucks, driven for more trip miles, than drivers in other states?

    I have driven across the country more than once, including from El Paso to Galveston. That doesn’t make me an expert on the causes of traffic crashes.

  • I can understand having higher speed limits in more rural areas. Interstate 90 between the River Gorge and Spokane I wish had a speed limit of 75 because there is nothing inbetween until the airport. It is rather flat and rolling hills.

    To call it an autobahn I think is taking one step too far. We are a distracted driving society and I find 35 million dollars more for 5 mph more is ridiculous. Given that this goes between two major cities, 80 would make sense, but 85 might be pushing things a bit too much. Although France’s motorways I think are at 130 or 140 which is within the realm.

  • Bryan5555

    Texas now has the highest fatality rate in the country in the total deaths. Even more than california which has 20 million more registered drivers. So clearly them moves Texas makes are why it has the highest death rate. And more police oficers killed on roads than any other state. And Texas is pro life? Give me a break

  • No one

    85mph is about 130 km/h, which is the recommended limit on German Autobahnen. But having a wreck in a well-tuned 7-series cannot be compared to having a wreck in a pickup truck that cannot even dream of being an ultimate driving machine. Let Darwin have his fun in Texas.  The higher speed limits in Germany brought about the safety features built into all the cars over here. Perhaps in time, the US car makers will build more durable and safe as well.

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