By Joni Gray
A 41-mile-long toll road in the Lone Star State called Highway 130 (SH130), connecting Austin and San Antonio, has set the bar as the highest posted speed limit in America at 85 miles per hour.
Where’s this rise in speed limits coming from? Since 1995, when Congress repealed all federally imposed speed limits, the states have taken responsibility for the posted limits of individual cities and towns. In the years that followed, speeds have been steadily on the rise.
There are 36 states with 70 mile per hour limits, 12 that allow speeds on some highways to reach 75 and only 2 states, Utah and Texas, that post 80-mile-per-hour signs on selected highways and tolls. Most of the roads with higher speed limits are in rural, lower-populated areas.
A Need for Speed
The support for higher speeds and resulting political pressure from drivers to legislators is easily explained by a culture growing used to instant access of all things. God forbid we don’t get where we are going as fast as humanly possible.
Safety experts have a growing concern about this trend. Research conducted by the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that few drivers view speeding as an immediate risk to themselves or others, yet the probablity of death, disfigurement, or injury grows with higher speed at impact and doubles for every 10 mph over 50 mph that a vehicle travels.
And the fatality numbers are alarming. The NHTSA reports that on average, 1,000 Americans are killed every month in speed-related crashes and 66% of speed-related crashes involve a single vehicle.
Good News, Bad News
The good news is that fatality rates are on the decline. Between 2006 and 2012, there have been a reported 27% fewer deaths due to traffic accidents. Experts do not believe this comes from safer driving at lower speeds. It’s been concluded instead that the combination of cars built to handle at higher speeds and improved passive and active safety technology are the key reasons for the change.
No matter how you slice it, increasing the speed limit invites people to push the boundaries up. Or so says Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director with the Governor’s Highway Safety Association in Texas.
“Whenever we see a posted speed limit, we think we can go above it,” Adkins said. “We think we can go 5 or 10 mph above it and a lot of cases we can’t, so the reality is you’re talking about the flow of traffic being 90, 95, even a little bit more, and so if you’re in a crash, you’re just not going to survive, even if you wear a seatbelt.”
Fast Lane Hogs
With all the arguments for and against an 85 MPH posting, an unforeseen factor was alledgedly the cause of the first three accidents that occurred after the opening of SH130 in October of 2012. Officials in the area have reported that two wild hogs and a deer were hit on the the road since its opening. A local news station reported video footage from the local police officials, showing examples of the feral hogs running into the highway and the easy access wildlife has to the high-speed road. They report that the hogs have become such a problem in the local area, that there is a bounty of $2 per tail on them due to overpopulation.
So, with all the arguments about high-speed safety, the first accidents on SH130 did not reportedly involve speed. This does beg the question — will driving that fast put you in a more dangerous situation when wildlife has easy access to the highway?
The Economics of Speed
The cost for driving on America’s fastest highway is an average of $6.17 one way. That price pays for shaving off around 9 minutes on a trip that usually takes around 38 minutes to complete. Not too surprising is the fact that high-speed highways are money-makers and that’s where the rubber literally meets the road. If the the case of Highway 130 is any clue to the future, driving faster is a profitable venture for state governments.
The private company that built SH130, Cintra-Zachry, was confident that the toll road could be a money-maker in the market for speed. In fact, they baked it into the deal. The company offered the five-member state legislators a financial incentive in its contract — $67 million cash payment up front or percentage of the toll profits in the future for posting at 80 mph, and $100 million up front or a corresponding increase in profit.
So with states looking for any way possible to become financially healthy and please an increasingly impatient constituency, the future of speed limit increases seems to be fast approaching — whether we like it or not.