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Deep in the Heart of Texas, at 85 MPH

We built the interstates when "I Love Lucy" aired in prime time. It's safe to drive a little faster now.

Texas is a big state. It’s not surprising that Texans value getting from one place to another without lollygagging.

The state made news recently when its Department of Transportation proposed to test part of a new toll road to see if motorists could safely take it at speeds up to 85 miles per hour. If approved, the 85 mph speed limit would be the first in the country.

Texas and Utah are the only states that currently have speed limits of 80 mph in some areas. But before 1974, and again between 1995 and 1999, Montana’s daytime speed limits were simply speeds that were “reasonable and prudent” – sometimes called the Basic Rule.

I learned to drive in Montana under the 55 mph limit, but the fine for speeding at the time was $5, and no driver’s license points were assessed for violations. In effect, the Basic Rule remained operational in Montana, even before it was reinstated officially in 1995. (The state’s speed limit is now 75 mph on suitable stretches of the interstates.)

In Florida today, the speed limit is 70 mph. When I drive the 275 miles between Fort Lauderdale and Palm Coast, on long, straight stretches of Interstate 95, I generally set the cruise control at around 79 or 80 mph. This speed puts me at about average; I pass some cars, and some cars pass me.

I have driven on the autostrade of Italy at 150 kph (about 93 mph). I’ve driven on the German autobahns, where the recommended speed is 130 kph (approximately 81 mph), though there is no official limit for cars. I’ve never seen anyone pulled over for speeding in either place.

However, in my experience, drivers on these European superhighways are diligent about following the rules of the road. American drivers are less disciplined. We pass on the right, we hog the left lane, and only some of us bother to signal when we change from one lane to another.

Incidentally, I am not arguing that Europeans in general are more careful drivers than Americans (though Germans might be). In Italy, drivers seem to save all their self-control for those high-speed autostrades. Chaos reigns on the streets of Rome and Naples, where the locals seem to regard traffic lights and one-way markers as merely advisory. But since traffic – except for the ever-present and ever-annoying squadrons of scooters – seldom moves faster than a crawl in town, the frequency and severity of bodily harm stays within tolerable limits.

I have no beef with the new 85 mph limit in Texas, but I do wonder how fast people will actually drive before getting a ticket. I also wonder whether Americans are prepared to teach ourselves to follow the rules that become more important at higher speeds.

When I learned to fly, I learned the importance of safety rules. In the air, you don’t ever ignore them. If there is a traffic controller, you ask him or her before you move your plane at all (even on the ground), and you do precisely what the controller tells you. If there is no controller, you always announce your position and listen carefully for the position of others. You then behave accordingly. As the saying goes, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

Ignoring the rules gets people killed on the interstate, too. And that risk only increases as speeds increase.

Interstate construction began in the 1950s, and was largely finished by the 1970s. There is no reason why it has to take us as long to get from point A to point B as it did when the highways were first built. Cars today are much safer than in the ’50s. They brake better; they handle better; they have stability controls. Many cars come with built-in anti-collision devices: sensors that measure the distance between vehicles so that the brakes engage automatically when that distance grows too small, which can mean the difference between a fender-bender and a fatal crash.

Leaving aside questions of fuel economy – though cars are also much more fuel-efficient than they used to be – we can now afford to save time by increasing speeds. Time is valuable, and saving it is certainly a good thing. But with great automotive power comes great responsibility. If Americans want to reap the full benefit of the advances we’ve made in both cars and the roads they drive on, we will have to respect the rules that make high-speed travel safe.

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TTH June 21, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Must have been a slow day at the office!!
INTHEKNOW June 23, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Texas certainly has some wide open spaces, but is also home to 4 of the busiest 10 cities in America (Houston, DFW, Austin and San Antonio). Most people rarely venture 20 miles from home, but if they want to raise the limit on some desolate stretch of limited access highway, have at it.

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