By Ricardo B.Brazziell, AP
An 85-mph speed limit sign is placed on the 41-mile-long toll road in Austin, near the increasingly crowded Interstate between Austin and San Antonio, Texas.
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
Texas' new highest-in-the-nation speed limit - 85 mph on a 41-mile stretch of toll road between Austin and San Antonio- could mean that other states will soon see higher speed limits, experts say.
The Texas Transportation Commission approved the new speed limit on Aug. 30; the first section of the toll road opens later this year. Rates will be set then, but will be comparable to other Central Texas toll roads. Tolls in Central Texas average 20-30 cents per mile for a full-length trip, says Steve Pustelnyk, spokesman for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which manages toll roads in the Austin area.
"There's a bit of an 'arms race' with speed limits, so we fully expect other states to push to increase their limits," says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a non-profit group that represents the states' highway safety offices.
Other states are most likely to hike speed limits on toll roads, says Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation. "That's something we're likely to see more of because federal funding for free roads is drying up," he says, meaning more states are turning to toll roads. "When you do that, it gives you the opportunity to offer premium services on those roads. Higher speeds is one way of doing that."
Schank notes that the new multiyear federal transportation funding bill passed by Congress in June significantly increases loans available to states to build toll roads.
The top speed limit in 35 states is at least 70 mph, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Texas and Utah currently are the speed kings, with 80 mph speed limits.
It isn't clear just how fast drivers will actually zip between Austin and San Antonio.
"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," says Russ Rader, an Insurance Institute spokesman. "But it's hard to know when you get up to those extreme speeds what people are going to do."
News that Texas plans an 85 mph speed limit on the new toll road, which runs several miles east of Interstate 35, reignited the national debate about speeding and safety.
"An 85 mph speed limit is alarming," Adkins says. "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."
He cites a March GHSA report showing that 10,530 people died in speeding-related crashes in the USA and Puerto Rico in 2010 - 31% of all traffic deaths. Since 2000, the share of speeding-related road deaths increased by 7% while drunken driving deaths dropped 3%. Seven states - Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia - raised speed limits on at least some roads between 2005-2012.
But John Bowman of the National Motorists Association, which advocates for higher speed limits, says it is possible to safely raise speed limits on highways - as long as engineering studies have shown that the road can handle such an increase. He points to the Ohio Turnpike, which raised the speed limit to 70 mph in the spring of 2011. It recorded the lowest fatality rate in its history that same year - six deaths.
The new Texas toll road was "designed and tested for high-speed travel," says Veronica Beyer, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. "Safety is our top priority, and tests have shown the designated speed is a safe one."