Is the American autobahn finally here?
Not quite, but it's getting closer. The signs on a newly opened Texas toll road read 85 mph, the highest posted speed limit in the nation.
The 41-mile stretch on the way from Austin to San Antonio breaks new ground in other ways as well, allowing a private company to charge drivers desperate to avoid the gridlock on nearby Interstate 35.
Since November, one fatality has been recorded on State Highway 130 and isn't believed to be speed-related. One driver has hit a deer. And two have hit feral hogs. (You're covered for either if you have comprehensive insurance.)
Safety experts and consumer advocates have expressed concern about the new speed limit and question the motives. Under a contract with Concession Co., which will operate the road, Texas will receive a one-time payment of $100 million for setting the limit at 85 mph. The payment would drop to $67 million if the limit were a mere 80 mph.
The limit on a parallel, non-toll road was reduced from 65 mph to 55 mph.
Is a speeding ticket for 93 mph a big deal?
So when you get pulled over on State Highway 130, are you simply another driver doing a few mph over the limit, or a speed demon crowding 100?
Luckily for the lead-footed, almost all states and counties assess fines by mph over the limit, not by absolute speed. Fines vary; for example, 95 mph around Austin will cost $194, not including fees and court costs.
In some states, reckless driving is an absolute threshold. For example, Virginia makes 80 mph an automatic reckless driving ticket. Texas leaves the distinction between speeding and recklessness to the discretion of the Trooper.
Speed matters at car insurance renewal time, too.
Car insurance companies look at how far you were over the line. Guidelines vary, but a ticket less than 5 mph over the limit will typically be treated differently than a ticket where you were going 20 mph over the limit, says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner.
A reckless driving charge will drive your rates up dramatically.
And speeds over 80 mph will hurt your chances for a usage-based discount. Pay-as-you-drive programs vary dramatically, with most emphasizing low miles and safe driving hours, but State Farm includes incidents exceeding 80 mph in its calculations of your discount.
Safety experts are divided
Is 85 mph safe? It depends on who you ask.
Speed limits have been increasing across the country since federal controls were repealed in 1995. Currently 35 states allow top speeds of at least 70 mph.
Not surprisingly the Texas Department of Transportation is confident that 85 mph is a safe speed. Kelli Reyna, spokesperson for TxDOT, says "It is important to remember these segments of roadway were designed and tested for high-speed travel. Safety is our top priority and tests have shown the designated speed is a safe one."
Safety and insurance experts feel 85 mph is just too high, that drivers who habitually exceed the speed limit would be traveling close to 100 mph.
"People tend to drive at a speed which they feel safe and comfortable," says John Bowman, spokesperson for the National Motorists Association. He points to Interstate 15 in Utah, where the speed limit was raised to 80 mph in two test sections three years ago. Studies found that average speeds increased only from 83 to 85 mph. Accidents decreased 11 percent in one test area and a whopping 20 percent in the other, Bowman says.
Kara Macek, spokesperson with Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), points out that while a higher speed limit may not result in more crashes, it is bound to end in more fatalities. "From a standpoint of pure physics, the faster you are traveling, the less likely you will be to survive a crash," she says."
A GHSA report released in March concluded that speed continues to be a big factor in traffic deaths. In 2010, a total of 10,530 people were killed in speed related accidents, almost a third of all traffic deaths. The GHSA found that since 2000, the share of traffic fatalities linked to speeding has increased by 7 percent.