We love to drive fast, especially on the open road.
It's a hallmark of America and now there's a new highway opening that will have a speed limit of 85 MPH.
That's right, there's a 40 mile stretch of a toll road between Austin and San Antonio where you will be able to legally drive 85 miles per hour — the highest speed limit on any highway in the U.S.
This is the latest example of a state raising the speed limit. Since 1995, 35 states have raised speed limits to 70 MPH or higher on some portion of their highways.
"People want to go fast," says Adrian Lund, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Cars are built to go fast and states increasingly want to raise their speed limits. Even if it means saving just two or three minutes during a trip, people want to go faster."
Comfortable Faster Speeds
Speed limits have been raised in part because state lawmakers feel drivers are more comfortable going well above 65 MPH. For that you can thank automakers who are building cars and trucks with greater capability and better performance at higher speeds. Michael Robinet, a consultant with IHS Global Insight says this is the influence of meeting European standards. "Automakers are moving toward global standards so their cars are engineered to perform at higher speeds you see in Europe on the Autobahn," says Robinet.
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Lund agrees. "The cars now make you feel more comfortable when you are going 85, 95 or even 100 miles per hour," says Lund. "Ten years ago, when a car got up around 80 or 85 miles per hour, it did not handle as well and you didn't feel as comfortable driving it."
Speed Kills, But Traffic Deaths Near Record Lows
It's an established fact in the auto business: faster speeds mean more deadly accidents. Drivers have less time to react, the force at impact is often greater, there's simply less margin for error.
And yet, traffic fatalities in the U.S. have been edging lower in recent years. According to preliminary data, an estimated 32,310 people died in vehicle accidents last year. That's the lowest level since 1949.
Interestingly, as the economy has improved, people are driving more and the fatality rate appears to be higher this year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association estimates 16,290 people died in accidents in the U.S. during the first half of this year. But, even with a 9 percent increase year over year, the fatality rate in the first half of 2012 is down 27% compared to the same time period in 2006.
How is it the fatality rate is staying relatively low if speed limits are moving higher?
Lund says a big factor are the safety improvements built into cars and trucks. Cars now are built safer. Whether it's electronic stability control to prevent roll-over crashes or adaptive cruise control to help drivers better react at higher speeds, these advancements are preventing accidents and saving lives.
Will we see 90 or 100 MPH Speed limits?
Strange as it sounds 85 MPH in Texas may not be the highest speed limit we see here in the U.S. If you think that is a crazy statement, consider this. Not long ago few could imagine speed limits of 75 or 80 MPH. Now they're becoming more common. Lund wonders where it will end. "Where do you draw the line? You know that people will go above 85 MPH. So why not set it at 90 or 95 MPH? "
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Don't be surprised if you hear growing calls for states to wave speed limits during certain periods. In the late 90's Montana had no speed limit during daytime hours. The law was that drivers were allowed to drive at speeds considered "reasonable and prudent." Supporters of Montana not having a speed limit say the fatality rate on Montana highways in the final five months without a speed limit were lower than after speed limits were reinstated. Why? Some of that could be linked to drivers on roads with no speed limits pay greater attention to what's happening on the road and spend less time worrying about speed traps and staying within a certain speed limit.
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The bottom line is that speed limits and how fast we're driving are both going up. Yes, speed kills, but right now speed is what American drivers want behind the wheel.
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