Good News and Bad News for Speed Lovers

By Chris Haak

According to a report over at The Detroit Bureau, Texas lawmakers are considering raising that state’s maximum speed limit to 85 miles per hour (137 km/h) on the wide-open, sparsely-populated sections of the biggest state in the contiguous United States.

While 85 MPH may sound fast – and it is – the change is not as dramatic as one might think.  Texas already has about 520 miles of Interstates where it’s legal to travel 80 MPH.  The change, if approved, would only raise the limit by five miles per hour.  The bill has already been approved by the Texas House, and it’s now being considered by the Texas Senate.  TDB reports that the Senate is leaning toward approving it, as is Governor Rick Perry (R) as well.

If approved, the 300-mile drive from Fort Worth to Midland might take as little as 3 1/2 hours at 85 MPH, while the same drive would take 5 hours at 60 MPH.  (Admittedly, it’s unlikely anyone is driving 60 MPH on that stretch; the additional 5 MPH between 80 MPH and 85 MPH on a 300-mile drive knocks 15 minutes off that trip, taking it from 3:45 to 3:30.)

Texas isn’t the only state considering a speed limit increase, and not even the only one with substantial prairie land considering such a change.  The state legislature in Kansas has passed a billraising that state’s maximum speed limit from 70 MPH to 75 MPH.  All that’s standing in the way is the signature of Governor Sam Brownback (R).  So far, this is all good for folks who like to travel with a bit more alacrity.

Predictably, the insurance industry is not particularly pleased with these developments, though it’s hard to argue with rapidly-declining highway fatality statistics.  About as many people died on our nation’s highways in 2009 than did in 1949, despite there being many multiples more cars on the road, and those cars traveling many thousands of miles more.  Credit better road design and much safer vehicle designs.  Just imagine how few people would die on the roads if everyone wore their seatbelts, didn’t text while driving, and didn’t drink and drive.

In many ways, higher speed limits can be safer.  Counterintuitive as it might sound at first, it’s generally speed differential that is more dangerous than high speeds taken alone.  Said another way, there will always be people who roll along at 75 or 80 MPH, even on roads with a 55 MPH speed limit.  But with that 55 MPH speed limit, you’ll also have people on the road who rigidly adhere to that.  The 25 MPH differential is dangerous, so if everyone is traveling at the higher speed, there’s less risk of suddenly coming up to a slower car and plowing into its rear end.  Throw in a sprinkle of lane discipline – keeping slower cars on the right, and only moving to the left lane to pass – and it seems that highway fatalities would be no worse than they are today, and (perhaps optimistically) an even smaller number.

But just as some US speed limits may be rising, speed limits may be coming for the first time to some unrestricted sections of the famous German Autobahn.  The Green Party has come to power in Badem-Wurttemberg, the state in Germany that is the home of Stuttgart, which itself is the home city of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz.

So what does politics have to do with Porsche and M-B?  Those makers of high-performance automobiles leverage the romance of unrestricted speed limit-free driving when marketing their vehicles.  Even if an American or Chinese buyer of a C63 AMG could never dream of traveling from city to city at a steady 155 MPH (250 km/h), knowing that the car was capable of such a feat makes the car more desirable in the eyes of some.

If the Green Party holds true to one of its campaign promises, however, the 45 percent of the Autobahn that is currently unrestricted could see a 120 km/h (75 MPH) speed limit in place.  I’m not sure about you, but to me, there’s hardly any appeal to knowing that a particular car can conquer the Autobahn at 75 MPH.  Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche has warned the same thing: making the Autobahn just any old freeway network will probably harm sales of German cars.

Think about it:  have you noticed any US-based auto manufacturer over the past 25 years advertising how well their cars handle Interstate driving?  Instead, most of the car advertising in this country shows a car’s Autobahn capabilities (did you know the Buick Regal was “bred on the Autobahn?), Nürburgring lap times (even for American cars like the Cadillac CTS-V or Corvette), or shows the car on a sweeping curve on a deserted road.  Replace the word “Autobahn” with “Interstate” in any advertisement, and you’ll see how important the Autobahn is for the image of German automakers.

Without the romantic idea of Autobahn capabilities, what will German automakers have to sell to the world?  Though there are some very, very good cars coming from Germany today from the likes of VW, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche, losing the allure of an unlimited Autobahn could tarnish the luster of the speed machines that these companies need to sell.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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