Transportation Policy

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 In addition, while interstate highway speed limits have risen since Congress repealed all federally imposed speed limits in 1995, fatalities categorized as "speeding-related" by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have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.