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85 MPH Texas Toll Road Speed Limit Raises Safety Concerns

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southbound I-15 – speed limit 80 mph

Highway in Utah, which along with Texas has the current highest speed limits.

Private operators of a Texas toll road will give that state $100 million for raising its speed limit to 85 miles per hour (mph), according to Jonathan Welsh writing for The Wall Street Journal blog Driver’s Seat. And other states may follow suit, news reports say.

The new higher speed limit will be in effect on a 41-mile portion of the 91-mile toll road between Austin and San Antonio, which will open this fall and be run by SF 130 Concession Co., a consortium of private road builders, Welsh reports. The 85 mph speed limit will thus make it the fastest stretch of highway in the U.S., Welsh writes.

The current top speed limit in 35 states is 70 mph, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, while Texas and Utah have the highest in the country, at 80 mph, writes Larry Copeland for USA TODAY.

Welsh writes that auto safety experts are wary of the 85 MPH speed limit, because accidents are more likely to be fatal at high speeds. He goes on to say:

A 2009 report in the American Journal of Public Health found that higher speed limits adopted by states in the wake of the 1995 repeal of federal speed-limit controls had led to a 3.2% increase in road fatalities, or an estimated 12,500 more deaths from 1995 to 2005. ‘When you increase speed limits, you have an increase in the severity of injuries,’ said Lee Friedman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the authors of the report.

And Copeland writes that Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a nonprofit group that represents the states’ highway safety offices, cites a March GHSA report showing that 10,530 people died in speeding-related accidents in the USA and Puerto Rico in 2010, which was 31% of all traffic deaths.

Copeland quotes Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute, addressing the 85 mph speed limit:

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. But it’s hard to know when you get up to those extreme speeds what people are going to do.

GHSA’s Adkins told Copeland: “Drivers will think they can go 90 or 95 and will be unlikely to survive a crash at that speed. Speeding continues to be the one area in highway safety where we aren’t making progress.”

Welsh writes that private roads with higher speed limits that are making money for states could be the wave of the future. He quotes Veronica Beyer, a transportation commission spokeswoman, in response to questions about the payout: “With transportation funding being a challenge all over the country, we must continue to look for innovative ways to generate revenue and be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

But Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based consumer-advocacy group, offered a different perspective to Welsh:

Desperate for cars on a vacant toll road, private toll-road operators now offer the state an extra $33 million to win a reckless competitive advantage. Such cozy deals are unsafe at any speed.

SH 130 Concession spokesman Chris Lippincott told Welsh the 85-mph road would be a draw to drivers looking to escape the often-congested highway. But David Stall, a co-founder of, a Texas group opposed to the privatization of roads, notes that this year Texas reduced the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph on the highway that runs alongside the new stretch of the toll road, Welsh reports. “The state is penalizing the motoring public by lowering the speed limit on the free alternative so that it can draw more business to the toll road,” Stall said.

Beyer, of the Texas transportation commission, told Welsh that safety is the commission’s highest priority, and that “the toll road has been designed and tested for high-speed travel.”

And John Bowman, of the National Motorists Association, which advocates for higher speed limits, told Copeland that as long as engineering studies show a road can handle higher speed limits, it is not a problem.

Image by CountyLemonade (Garrett).


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