With today’s opening of a 40-mile stretch of a Central Texas toll road, officials and residents will be watching to see how fast traffic goes — and whether the state’s drivers can handle the extra speed.
The new stretch of Texas Highway 130 will allow drivers to bypass Austin and avoid an often-congested Interstate 35. Its 85 mph speed limit will be the highest in the United States.
While state officials say they’re not immediately worried higher speeds will lead to more crashes, they are working to promote good driving habits, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Officials have arranged the installation of 3,400 signs that tell drivers the left lane is for passing only — a message also displayed on electronic signs.
“We’re going to have to teach Texans how to drive these safer speeds,” Texas Transportation Commission member Bill Meadows told the newspaper.
The Texas Department of Transportation was required by state law to conduct a speed study before setting the higher speed limit. In a demonstration of the study done for the newspaper, two safety officials drove an already open 19-mile stretch of Texas 130 with a speed limit of 80 mph.
Speed zone engineer Darren McDaniel drove in a pickup truck. Traffic operations division director Carol Rawson sat in the passenger seat and noted McDaniel’s speed. McDaniel tried to avoid looking at his speedometer and drove at a speed he found comfortable, as Rawson noted how fast he was going. Most of the time, he drove between 80 and 82 mph.
Rawson also noted road visibility and the amount of space on the highway shoulders.
The existing stretch of Texas 130 will likely retain an 80 mph speed limit, though that could be raised, both officials told the newspaper.
But whether the extra speed will cause more accidents remains to be seen. More than 3,000 people were killed on Texas roads last year, a higher fatality rate than the national average, the newspaper reported.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said raising the speed limit will inevitably lead some drivers to push the envelope.
“People do pay attention to the speed limit: They use it as a guideline and figure out how much faster they can go without getting a ticket,” Lund said. “Gradually, you end up with the same number of people exceeding the speed limit that you had before. There’s an assumption that the government is always conservative, so if 85 is the speed limit, then 90 and 95 must be safe, right?”
Jeff Gibeaux, a civil engineer in Lockhart who expects to take Texas 130, said he considers it a certainty that some drivers won’t be satisfied at 85.
“I think people will routinely pass me going 100,” Gibeaux said. “Regardless of the speed limit, there’s always going to be people who want to go past it.”