Texas May Go To 85… Oh, The Humanity!

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Maybe we’re over the hump.

Texas appears to be on the verge of raising its highway speed limits to 85. That’s good news for Texas motorists, who may soon get to drive legally at speeds they travel anyway.

Which brings up a question: Why do they call those signs speed limits?

A legitimate speed limit (not a speed that amounts to the de facto normal cruising speed or average traffic flow of most cars on the road, as current “speed limits” are) ought to be about 85-90 mph on most roads.

It’s ridiculous that the “limit” — as we Americans define it — amounts to the speed most cars are cruising along at. A speed limit ought to be just that — the absolute maximum safe speed for that road under ideal conditions.

It is absurd to take the position — as our system currently does — that the posted max is the maximum safe speed for the road. It implies that any car doing that speed is already pushing the envelope, operating right on the edge of recklessness. If so, all those people trundling along with the cruise control set at 70 don’t seem to be sweating it much. And given that probably 70 percent — likely a lowball figure — are actually exceeding the posted speed limit at any given moment, you have to take the position that either a very large percentage of American drivers are cavalierly reckless drivers — or the “limit” is really nothing more than a politically prescribed number that corresponds to — usually – just slightly less than the average, ho-hum flow of traffic.

A limit, it ain’t — except in a legal sense. Drive faster than the number painted on the sign and you place yourself in jeopardy of receiving a “speeding” ticket. It doesn’t mean anything more than that — even though our system imputes unsafe driving to it.

Consider: For about 20 years, no American could legally drive faster than 55 MPH on a U.S. Interstate Highway. On the same highways that had previously had significantly higher speed limits — 70, 75 MPH was common prior to 1974, when the 55 MPH edict went into effect. It suddenly became illegal to drive that fast. But it didn’t become unsafe — unless you attribute magical powers to Congress, which imposed the 55 MPH limit — and then, just as magically repealed it in 1994.

Did it, then, suddenly — miraculously — become “safe” to once again drive at 70 or 75 MPH on those very same roads?

Of course not. But no refunds were given for the millions of “speeding” tickets given to hapless motorists during the 20 years prior. Nor did the insurance companies issues an apology — and a store credit — for surcharging all those ticketed drivers on the basis of their “speeding” and, hence, their (supposedly) unsafe driving.

Things have gotten better. In most parts of the country, highway limits are at least up to — roughly — the normal, average speed of traffic — which seems to be somewhere between 70 and 75 MPH. Few cars go much slower than that; not very many go much faster than that.

Going by the 85th percentile rule — the method for setting speed limits that states and the federal government are supposed to abide by, which they have agreed to abide by but of course rarely do abide by — many current highway speed limits, properly defined, ought to be around 85 MPH, just as Texas is proposing.

The 85th percentile rule says observe the normal flow of traffic — conduct a traffic survey — and note the average speed of the cars traveling on that road. This observed average speed becomes the baseline from which the speed limit is extrapolated.

That’s how it’s supposed to be done. But of course, that’s not how it’s actually done.

The 85th percentile rule is obeyed about as much as the rule that says Congress is supposed to declare war before we send “the troops” off to fight a war.

The reason for this is obvious: There would be almost no need for traffic cops anymore; jobs would be lost — and revenue lost. A great deal of revenue. Some small towns (and even larger counties) depend on the cash flow generated by the local “speeding” racket for a huge chunk of their annual budgets. Everyone knows this. The officials barely even try to conceal the reality of the shakedown, for if “speeding” really were the homicidally reckless act they say it is, would they be giving people “breaks” at radar traps? Cutting the ticket down to 9 over instead of 13? Do we see such gentle, almost friendly, banter between cops and rapists? Of course we don’t.

If routinely exceeding politically contrived “limits” were in fact dangerous and not just a scam to gin up money without imposing an explicit Motorists Tax, then our system is oddly kindhearted to all the millions upon millions of (cough) dangerous drivers out there.

But of course, they’re not dangerous. Just guilty of ignoring a number pulled out of a hat and plastered into a sign by politicians bureaucrats. The cops know it, the judges know it, the insurance companies know it, too.

All the evidence says so, too.

It was just announced that highway fatalities have dropped to their lowest level since 1949 — even though people are driving faster and lately, legally so.

By now, the idiot mantra that “speed kills” ought to be as discredited as disco and bell bottom jeans.


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4 Responses to “Texas May Go To 85… Oh, The Humanity!”

  1. DrChainsaw77 says:

    Just remember – those speed limits were decided by people usually ferried about in limousines and enforced by those who need only to turn on a light and watch traffic before them move aside. No person who actually deals with traffic as it is has anything at all to do with such mindless legalities.

  2. arencambre says:

    This really isn't accurate. Long story short, it has no impact on Texans.

    The 85 mph deal is really a holdover from the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed, but never really built, system of superhighways. The current statute allows TTC roads to have a speed limit of up to 85 mph.

    This hoopla is in HB 1201, a bill that formally cancels the TTC but still allows this higher limit on certain roads. The version of the bill that emerged from the Texas House http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/82R/billtext/html/HB01201E.htm, says this can only apply to highways with an 85 mph or higher design speed and which opened on or after June 1, 2011.

    The design speed requirement is foul. Design speeds are also the speed of a highway segment's worst portion. E.g., if a road segment was perfectly safe for 90 mph except for a curve only safe above 70, then the design speed for the whole segment is 70. It doesn't take much extrapolation to see abuse of this. Also, design speed standards seem somewhat arbitrary, conservative estimates based on laboratory conditions. Some traffic engineers have alleged that design speeds are even based on capabilities of cars from decades ago, although I think there was a movement to rationalize these?

    The Senate has the bill now, but I doubt they'll liberalize the bill back to its introduced version http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/82R/billtext/html/HB01201I.htm, which would have allowed the Texas Transportation Commission to set an 85 mph limit on virtually any road.

    The bill that will really make a difference is HB 1353 http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/82R/billtext/html/HB01353H.htm, which would instantly turn all 70 mph limits in Texas to 75 mph, eliminate the 65 mph night speed limit everywhere, and eliminate truck speed limits, which weren't entirely cleared out in 1999 because of a problem with the legislation. This is significant because almost every 2 lane rural US or state highway, even 2 lane roads, would get a 75 mph limit. Given how late we are in the session and how much focus is on the budget, it's looking less likely this bill will go anywhere, but who knows?

  3. arencambre says:

    Update: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/texas-legislature/headlines/20110415-texas-legislature-blog-house-approves-75-mph-speed-limits-for-major-divided-highways-outside-urban-areas.ece says HB 1353 passed the house, but the legislature web site isn't updated yet with the house version. If the article is right, it got watered down.

    The bill has tons of sponsors, so it may pass.

  4. arencambre says:

    Update: HB 1353 passed the house today. The bill's author changed it so that 75 mph is optional pending Texas Transportation Commission approval, not automatic. Otherwise, the bill's other parts are still intact.