Increase in Texas speed limits: More freedom or more deaths?

Motorists' rights advocates are applauding a loosening of speed limits in Texas, while traffic safety advocates are warning that higher speed limits will mean more carnage on the state's roads.

A law taking effect Sept. 1, 2011, in Texas eliminates the 65 mile per hour nighttime speed limit for highway motorists as well as the 65 mph daytime and nighttime limits for big rigs. Those limits will climb to 70 mph.

Furthermore, the law lets the Texas Department of Transportation establish a 75 mph limit on any state highway "found to be reasonable and safe." The Department of Transportation says it will review existing 70 mph speed limits on about 50,000 miles of highway to determine where 75 mph limits could be posted.

auto texas speed limit Texas already allows speed limits of 75 mph and 80 mph on some stretches of rural interstate highways. Where 80 mph limits are in place, the limits might go up to 85 mph (which would be the highest speed limit in the country).

Motorists group: 75 mph reasonable

Henry Stowe of Spring, Texas, an activist for the National Motorists Association, says removal of the 65 mph nighttime cap is a "constructive and needed change."

As for the possibility of a 75 mph speed limit on some Texas roads, the association says it favors speed limits that reflect "prevailing" travel speeds. It says 75 mph is a reasonable speed limit "on good highways in good weather conditions."

The association urges motorists to "always use their good judgment, not just speed limit signs, when adjusting their speed to accommodate existing travel conditions."

Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, says speed limits should be set based on a review of normal, unimpeded traffic flow. That's usually accomplished through traffic engineering surveys measuring the "85th percentile." The 85th percentile is the speed at or below where 85 percent of motorists are driving on a certain stretch of road when they're not hampered by slow traffic or bad weather.

"Because many existing speed limits were instituted years -- if not decades -- ago, the limits typically do not reflect current traffic conditions and are, in most cases, posted well below actual safe travel speeds," Biller tells InsuranceQuotes.com.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety argues that relying on the 85th percentile isn't always appropriate. The nonprofit group explains that the 85th percentile is not a stationary point; instead, it's a "moving target" that increases when speed limits are raised.

Highway safety group: Higher speed, more deaths

Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the highway safety group, cautions that more motorists will die on Texas roads where speed limits are raised, as driving faster raises the risk of crashes and the likelihood of traffic deaths and injuries.

"Whenever and wherever speed limits have been raised, deaths have increased," Fleming tells InsuranceQuotes.com. "This unfortunate result has been documented in study after study, on numerous roads in numerous states."

Fleming cites a 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimating that 12,545 deaths on U.S. roads between 1995 and 2005 could be attributed to increases in speed limits.

For its part, the National Motorists Association points to studies showing that the drivers most likely to get into traffic accidents are those traveling significantly below the average speed.

From 2004 through 2008, speeding was a key factor in 7,203 traffic deaths in Texas, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The motorists association says government figures about speed-related traffic deaths are "misleading."

The Texas Department of Transportation says signs for the 65 mph nighttime and truck speed limits should be removed by the end of 2011. Meanwhile, evaluation of the state highway system and posting of all new 75 mph limits should be finished by early 2013.

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