Raise the Speed Limit

The surveillance technologies deployed on roadways across the U.S. don’t need to be so unilaterally oppressive.

In the wide open plains of central Texas, a new addition to State Highway 130 opened for business this week with a compelling marketing hook: Its speed limit of 85 MPH is the highest in America. The 41-mile toll road connects Seguin to Mustang Ridge. The former is a distant exurb of San Antonio that calls itself “the pecan capital of the world.” The latter, population 861, is a notorious speed trap. So if you’ve been dying to go nowhere fast, it just got a tiny bit easier. At 85 MPH, the journey between these two burgs takes just 28 minutes and 56 seconds.

At 65 MPH, the trip would take almost nine full minutes longer—an eternity in an era when we have come to expect instant access to everything. Thus, the new 85 MPH limit is both an attempt to keep small towns relevant in the face of increasing urbanization, and also an acknowledgement of how people actually drive when there are endless miles to traverse and few natural impediments to higher rates of travel. As long ago as 1954, a Texas law enforcement officer told The New York Times that “it was nothing unusual to see strings of cars traveling at 90 to 100 miles an hour” on some Texas roads.

There were 32,310 traffic fatalities in 2011, the fewest there have been since 1949. More importantly, fatality rates per 100 million vehicle miles traveled have dropped substantially over the years, falling from 24.09 in 1921 to 1.09 in 2011. In addition, while interstate highway speed limits have risen since Congress repealed all federally imposed speed limits in 1995, fatalities categorized as “speeding-related” by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have declined since then. Specifically, there were 13,414 speeding-related fatalities in 1995  and 10,591 in 2011. Of the 10,591 speeding-related fatalities in 2011, just 964 occurred on interstate highways with speed limits “over 55 MPH.”

So even as critics contend that an 85 MPH speed limit will increase fatalities, it’s no surprise that Texas is implementing the higher limit: Driving in America has never been safer than it is now.

And if State Highway 130 proves popular with motorists, expect other states to increase their top speed limits too. Seguin and Mustang Ridge aren’t the only small towns that would like to be a few minutes closer to larger metro regions that aggregate jobs, schools, and other opportunities.

But is Texas’s bold speed limit move bold enough? In one of the most convincing proofs ever that the medium is the message, the speed limit signs of the early 20th century quickly solidified the notion that a single designated top speed could adequately govern traffic in a given area regardless of all other factors—not because this was in any way logical, but rather because that’s what was technologically and economically feasible at the time. In the early 1900s, it would have been costly and time-consuming to create signs that changed in accordance with congestion levels, road surface conditions, and the current state of the weather.

Now, however, we have signs that can display whatever limit is most appropriate to the current conditions. More importantly, we have the ability to closely monitor how motorists actually drive specific roads as conditions change—and we can use that information to determine the most appropriate speed limits. Imagine, for example, a highway where the speed limit bumps up to 85 MPH on days when it’s sunny and windless and there are few cars on the road. Or drops down to 55 MPH on Saturday nights between midnight and 3 AM, because that’s when a high number of fatal accidents occur.

Next, imagine that the speed limit on that highway is designed to encourage positive behavior rather than penalize bad behavior. In June 2012, NPR reported that researchers funded in part by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted a test in which they offered drivers a weekly $25 reward to comply with speed limits. Every time drivers exceeded a posted speed limit by five to eight miles per hour, they lost 3 cents from their potential prize money. Every time they exceeded a posted speed limit by nine or more miles per hour, they lost six cents. “We found that the incentive system was incredibly effective in getting drivers to reduce their speeding,” NHTSA researcher Ian Reagan told NPR.

Toll roads—like State Highway 130 in Texas—would make ideal labs for further experimentation. With users already paying mileage fees for access, compliance incentives could come in the form of discounts rather than explicit payments. In the case of State Highway 130, passenger cars and pickup trucks must pay 15 cents a mile to access the road. For daily commuters, such charges can add up quickly—so much so that, say, a 12-cent per mile discount rate for users who faithfully observe the speed limit might prove compelling. Or perhaps rather than a discount, a portion of the road’s weekly usage fees could be set aside for a lottery that only the non-speeders would be eligible for.

In either scenario, the increasingly omniscient surveillance technologies that are already being deployed on roadways across the U.S. no longer seem quite so unilaterally oppressive. Motorists are closely monitored, but in a way that potentially benefits rather than penalizes them. Combine that with speed limits that are nuanced, flexible, and determined by how motorists are actually using roads under variable conditions and suddenly we’d have speed limits that no longer looked quite so much like relics from the Model T era.

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  • BlogimiDei||

    I never liked Sammy Hagar.

  • Generic Stranger||

    YOU DON'T TALK SHIT ABOUT SAMMY.

    (Seriously, since I've moved to Oregon my fucking theme song is "I can't drive 55".)

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Or drops down to 55 MPH on Saturday nights between midnight and 3 AM,

    In order to give the cops an excuse to pull anyone and everyone over and ask, "Have you been drinking?"

  • R C Dean||

    Well, sure, the surveillance state doesn't need to be unilaterally oppressive, but where's the fun in having a surveillance state if you aren't unilaterally oppressive/

  • The Late P Brooks||

    In the case of State Highway 130, passenger cars and pickup trucks must pay 15 cents a mile to access the road. For daily commuters, such charges can add up quickly—so much so that, say, a 12-cent per mile discount rate for users who faithfully observe the speed limit might prove compelling. Or perhaps rather than a discount, a portion of the road’s weekly usage fees could be set aside for a lottery that only the non-speeders would be eligible for.

    Jesus.

    And all this time I thought the object of toll roads was to recover the capital costs and pay for maintenance.

  • tagtann||

    This looks like its gonan be good, thats the way to go man!

    www.Anon-Days.tk

  • Ron||

    In our little community they recently raised the speed from 55 to 60. that's fine but the pot heads, they are a real problem here, have not increased their rate of sped to match so now there is a grater danger when a car traveling a 60 encounters one traveling at 35 to 40. Our local CHP needs to start giving people tickets for being a safety hazard for traveling to slow.

  • geo1113||

    If you can't drive 60 with your knees when holding a pipe in you mouth with one hand and a lighter in the other hand, you shouldn't be on the road.

  • Berman Law||

    Leave it to Texas.

  • TPL||

    How are the cops going to raise funds to keep themselves employed, if fake low speed limits are removed?

  • MisterDamage||

    What with speed limits changing randomly to match changing conditions, I'm thinking "speed trap" will be a changing condition that when true, requires a reduction in the speed limit.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Abolish traffic laws and traffic control devices on public right of ways.

  • CE||

    And then abolish public right of ways.

  • Rabban||

    How about we get even more real and go full German with Autobahns? The Germans have been doing fast roads for over sixty years, in a typically miserable climate. Can we finally get to that point here?

  • KDN||

    But but but but children! I suppose you think it should be legal to fire a loaded gun into a crowd, too.

  • ||

    BINGO!

    Hold people accountable for the damage or accidents they cause if they can't properly control their vehicle at high speed, but arbitrarily slapping a limit on it is nothing more than a way to drive revenue for local governments, and always has been.

  • Svoogle||

    Sure you can get to that point. Step 1: go to Germany and look at their roads. Step 2: come back to America and invest around $3 Trillion in your highway system to get it somewhat up to German standards (you should probably bring some German engineers with you as Americans seem to be incapable of building 1st World roads) Step 3: teach Americans how to drive (Germany has mandatory driving school, people actually know how to operate a vehicle at 120mph).

  • The Happy Infidel||

    First, not everyone is comfortable driving at the same speed and there needs to be an accommodation for that fact. Second, the more unnaturally low the speed is, the more driver frustration, tailgating and weaving in & out of lanes there is.

    The biggest effect of speed limits is to make driving conditions les safe, not more safe.

    The alternative to speed limits are rules such:

    Pass on the left only. Pass quickly. Don't block traffic behind you in your lane. Merge at a speed near the same speed as main lane traffic. Don't brake unexpectedly. When exiting, begin to slow down only when the vehicle is completely in the exit lane. Allow people to merge & change lanes.

    Americans are not particularly good drivers & the further south, the worse it gets. I live in Texas and I can positively assure you that driving from Houston to Dallas on I-45, for example, is a truly pathetic experience. (And, to the a-holes that block traffic in the left lane: if it were up to me, I'd suspend your drivers license for a long, long time.)

    When I lived in Ontario, by way of comparison, drivers were considerably better mostly because drivers ignored the speed limits and used the rules that make sense (as I described above).

  • KDN||

    First, not everyone is comfortable driving at the same speed and there needs to be an accommodation for that fact. Second, the more unnaturally low the speed is, the more driver frustration, tailgating and weaving in & out of lanes there is.

    The biggest effect of speed limits is to make driving conditions les safe, not more safe.

    Hear, hear.

    Pass on the left only. Pass quickly. Don't block traffic behind you in your lane.

    More truth. This is the biggest problem with driving in NJ/NY: people just sit and sit in the passing lane instead of passing and getting over which forces me, as the fastest driver on the road 99% of the time, to do NASCAR shit to get around them when I'd prefer to just sit in the right, pass, and get back over.

    When exiting, begin to slow down only when the vehicle is completely in the exit lane. Allow people to merge & change lanes.

    The problem is that everybody thinks they already do this, but since not everyone is operating at the same skill level (see your first sentence) it leads to confusion from the less-skilled and frustration for the higher-skilled drivers. And I don't think it's something rectifiable unless you raise the barriers to getting a license.

    Americans are not particularly good drivers & the further south, the worse it gets...

    Having driven all the major E-W highways in the northeast from Mass through Ohio and N-S ones from Mass through GA, I'd dispute that. The worst median drivers are in Va.

  • GroundTruth||

    Better come up to southeastern New England and meet the Providence / Boston crowd. Not only are they the poorest drivers on the roads, but they are arrogant and rude to compound matters.

  • klecu||

    Or as I like to say:

    Keep up.
    Keep back.
    Keep right.

  • geo1113||

    Or:

    Get the fuck out of the way.

  • Anomalous||

    And use your fucking turn signals.

  • CE||

    I thought Texas had bad drivers. Then I moved to California, and found out what bad driving is all about.

  • Cameroon||

    Toll roads—like State Highway 130 in Texas—would make ideal labs for further experimentation. With users already paying mileage fees for access, compliance incentives could come in the form of discounts rather than explicit payments. In the case of State Highway 130, passenger cars and pickup trucks must pay 15 cents a mile to access the road. For daily commuters, such charges can add up quickly—so much so that, say, a 12-cent per mile discount rate for users who faithfully observe the speed limit might prove compelling. Or perhaps rather than a discount, a portion of the road’s weekly usage fees could be set aside for a lottery that only the non-speeders would be eligible for.

    In either scenario, the coach
    outlet
    increasingly omniscient surveillance technologies that are already being deployed on roadways across the U.S. no longer seem quite so unilaterally oppressive. Motorists are closely monitored, but in a way that potentially benefits rather than penalizes them. Combine that with speed limits that are nuanced, flexible, and determined by how motorists are actually using roads under variable conditions and suddenly we’d have speed limits that no longer looked quite so much like relics from the Model T era.

  • Atlas Stoned||

    And who the hell is Stuntman Mike?

  • CE||

    As long ago as 1954, a Texas law enforcement officer told The New York Times that “it was nothing unusual to see strings of cars traveling at 90 to 100 miles an hour” on some Texas roads.

    This wasn't uncommon in 2005 either. It was called "the LBJ Freeway."

  • dahowa||

    Let's be clear. SH 130 runs from north of Austin to San Antonio. The 85 mph speed limit may be between Seguin and Mustang Ridge, but those are exurbs along the route. I take SH 130 to the airport now and it is a joy. 75 mph as I travel from Round Rock, north of Austin, to the airport, on the south side of Austin. It's a toll road and I am happy to pay it to avoid Austin's horrible Interstate 35 traffic. It's a choice for people willing to pay for it.

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