It's full speed ahead with new Texas speed limit laws

Marcus Pickett

More than 25 years after Sammy Hagar told America that he can't drive 55, Texas had to decide if it could stick to 70 miles per hour. During the 2011 legislature, Gov. Rick Perry signed off on two bills that affect how fast Texans can drive.

The laws

H.B. 1201 raises the speed limit to 85 mph on some highways. The law affects only certain roads -- newer ones designed for increased speed and approved by the Texas Transportation Commission. Although the statewide speed limit is 70 mph, there are areas in the sparsely populated areas of the state that have limits of 75 or even 80 mph.

A related piece of legislation, H.B. 1353, took effect Sept. 1, 2011. It eliminates the discrepancy between daytime and nighttime speed limits, previously set at 70 and 65 mph, respectively, on many state highways. Both now are bumped up to 75 on state highways deemed safe for higher speeds. This law also removes the slower speed limits placed on tractor-trailers outside urban areas, although school buses still are required to stay within a 60 mph speed limit.

Public safety concerns

Speed kills, according to opponents of higher limits. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that speeding is involved in one-third of all fatal crashes, killing nearly 900 Americans every month. Advocates of higher speed limits argue that on many roads with little traffic, driving above the speed limit is safe. Therefore, raising the limits makes them practical instead of arbitrary -- and will likely cut down on the need for law enforcement. However, according to IIHS, fast drivers will simply exceed the new, higher speed limit.

Another concern is stopping distance -- the amount of space a vehicle needs to stop safely to avoid a crash. Stopping distance increases exponentially. There is a greater increase in stopping distance (and safety risk) when going from 70 to 85 mph, for example, than there is when going from 55 to 70 mph. For large trucks, the difference is even bigger.

Should everything be bigger in Texas?

Despite the popular saying that everything's bigger in Texas, the state's speed limits don't stick out too much compared with other states. Several sparsely populated states, including Arizona, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, allow drivers on rural interstates to drive 75 mph, according to IIHS. More densely populated New England states generally keep to a more conservative 65 mph for rural interstates.

Advocates for the higher limits point out that Texas is a big state. It's nearly 750 miles to get from El Paso to Houston, and much of the drive is dominated by long, straight stretches of sparsely populated highway. In an interview for, Rep. Lori Kolkhorst, who introduced H.B. 1201, pointed out that a higher speed limit could help people and goods move throughout the massive state.

How will the new laws affect Texans?

For most Texas drivers, the 85 mph speed limits will have little effect. The new limits apply only to newly constructed roads specifically designed to handle high speeds, according to the law. Those roads haven't even been built yet.

Doing away with daytime and nighttime speeds likely will affect more Texans. In fact, before the law's passage, Texas was the only state that had different daytime and nighttime speed limits on its interstate highways. Montana has day and night speed limits only on certain limited-access roads, according to IIHS. All other states have done away with such differentiations to reflect modern traffic patterns and improved headlight technology.

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