DOTHAN, Al, October 25, 2012 — During a recent break in the wall-to-wall media coverage of the election, a news item came in that Texas finally opened a new stretch of highway between Austin and San Antonio where the speed limit is set to 85 mph. That gives Texas the honor of having the highest officially posted speed limit in the nation, although the pace itself is still behind the New Jersey Turnpike, where drivers are noted for routinely driving at 90 mph while drinking coffee, talking on the phone, and flashing the bird at other drivers.
Texas 130 is 41 miles long and was built to alleviate traffic jams that routinely occur on existing roads between the two cities. It will have a toll of about 15 cents per mile starting November 11th, and then the state and the construction company that built the road will share tolls under a 50-year maintenance contract. The state’s take is expected to be around $100 million which, when combined with expected ticket revenue from drivers who are already exceeding the limit, should make this a fairly profitable venture. Apparently those sneaky Republicans are up to their old tricks.
The new limit is causing some controversy over safety, though at the moment the road is so empty that the only real danger is to stray rattlesnakes and disoriented armadillos. Ever quick on the draw, insurance companies are already predicting that auto rates are likely to rise, and state transportation officials suggest they may have to improve driver training.
Well duh. Just about anyone in the United States can get a driver’s license these days as long as they aren’t legally blind and know enough to open a door before walking through it. Tightening up the licensing in every state would be a good idea.
A flap over English-language signage hasn’t erupted yet, but there is certain to be some yelling as more road signs are erected with warnings not to change lanes in front of a truck, not to use a right-hand exit from the left-hand lane or not to stop in the fast lane to take pictures of coyotes chasing roadrunners. These are complicated instructions and are not covered by driver license testing.
Last but not least, the green crowd has yet to put in their two-cents. Expect some arguing over higher CO2 emissions from the faster speeds and how this new stretch of highway is likely to help shorten the total lifespan of the earth’s atmosphere by as much as .00034 seconds.
In Germany the ability to drive as fast as the speed of sound is a source of national pride, but Germans also want to be recognized as environmental leaders. Greenpeace points out that imposing a speed limit on the Autobahn of 120 kph (about 75 mph) would reduce Co2 emissions by as much as 9% almost overnight. This is obviously not a popular idea with people who drive cars made by Porsche, BMW or Mercedes.
Reactions outside the United States to the new highway in Texas vary. I did a very informal and unscientific survey of a few areas and found that in Germany, at least in the cities, there is a lot more emphasis on riding bicycles than driving cars. Apparently it doesn’t rain there as much as it does here. Scandinavians have a top speed limit of 69 mph and tend to worry more about safety than getting somewhere faster. They also don’t have to go very far to get from one side of the country to the other.
The United Kingdom, like Europe, requires very rigorous training to get a driver’s license and puts great emphasis on courtesy to other drivers. How British of them. The English also believe Americans are too primitive to be allowed to drive at all because we never learned to use the correct side of the road.
There is evidence that lowering speed limits also lowers traffic deaths. When limits were set to 55 mph in the 1970’s there were more deaths from boredom than from speeding. However, the national traffic fatality rate has been trending downward the past few years despite limits remaining largely unchanged. The national traffic fatality rate for 2011 was the lowest it’s been since 1949, and the rate in 2010 was the lowest rate ever recorded. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes most of the improvement to safer vehicles and a sharp drop in accidents involving drunk drivers.
The statistics also show you are better off inside a vehicle than you are outside of one. Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, so while drivers are safer, apparently more of them are running over people walking in the streets. The NHTSA has now started tracking incidents involving “distracted driving,” but doesn’t correlate that to deceased pedestrians. Just the same, if you’re crossing a street and see a driver on the phone we would advise moving a little faster toward the sidewalk.
A basic principle of physics is that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Whoever came up with that obviously never drove in New York or Los Angeles. The major difference between east and west is that a traffic jam around New York means all forward motion comes to a halt for several days or weeks. In the west, bumper-to-bumper traffic simply means they slow down from 75 mph to around 60 mph and keep going. That’s why they have massive pile ups in California and have made it illegal to apply your brakes too quickly.
Right now a traffic jam on Texas 130 means you can see another car on the horizon, but that will change quickly as word spreads that for a mere $6.00 you can drive at 85 mph, aggravate environmentalists and cover 41 miles in about 28 minutes. Or, for an extra $165 you can drive at 90 mph and get there in two hours after spending some time with a state trooper.
Texas transportation officials noted they are putting up 3,400 signs to warn slower drivers to keep to the right, but there was no mention about how they will deal with elderly drivers from Florida who occupy the left lane and make others pass on the right.
I wish the state of Texas success with their new road. Opening a new highway, as with anything else, always takes a little time to work out all the details. Except for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which has been trying to finish construction and open all lanes for over 60 years.
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