EVERYTHING, they say, is bigger in Texas. With 254 counties and 268,000 square miles, second only to Alaska in size, the Lone Star State is a vast place of wide open spaces. So the same state that gave America George W. Bush and Dan Rather is pushing something else sure to provoke controversy: an 80-miles-per-hour speed limit.
The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to decide within the next week whether to boost the state's speed limit on long stretches of two Texas interstates from 70 and 75 mph to a flat - or should we say, flat-out? - 80 mph.
We think that's a bad idea, not just because of the obvious safety factor but because an awful lot of Texans are already driving that fast.
A study by the Texas Department of Transportion, called TxDOT, determined that the great majority of drivers on the affected interstate highways - 85 percent of them - already drive between 76 and 79 mph in the 10 mostly rural counties involved.
That's hardly a surprise. Millions of American motorists consider the speed limit nothing more than a good starting point, not an upper barrier but a minimal one. Law enforcement will tell you that most of us add 5 mph, and in many cases, 10 mph, to the posted limit.
So what will happen when Texas says it's okay to go 80? Traffic will pick up the pace and a lot of drivers will consider 85 their new minimum. The higher limit also will increase the disparity between those with a heavy foot on the accelerator and those for whom such speeds are uncomfortable. Vehicles moving along the same highway at significantly different speeds constitute a safety hazard by definition.
The added risk here is that other states may decide to follow Texas' lead. Thirteen states in the West and Midwest have 75-mph limits; Michigan's maximum legal speed is 70 mph and Ohio's is 65.
There's another element in all of this, and that's the price of gasoline. The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that gas mileage declines dramatically at speeds above 60 miles per hour. In fact, each 5 mph over 60 is the equivalent, DOE says, of an extra 20 cents per gallon of gas.
That prospect, however, doesn't seem to be slowing Americans down, and we would bet that's especially true among the good old boys of the Deep South.
Of course, Texas will do what Texas darn well pleases.
As the song says, you don't pull the mask off the Lone Ranger and you don't spit into the wind. An 80-mph limit in Texas seems a foregone conclusion, and any Yankee who criticizes it is just spittin' into the wind.
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