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85 MPH: Almost a Speed Limit

A lonely exception on a lonely stretch of Texas highway.

By 11.16.12

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On a stretch of road near Austin, Texas, there is an actual speed limit. Or at least, close to one.

You can drive up to 85 MPH on Texas Highway 130 -- and not worry about receiving a "reckless driving" ticket. Or even a "speeding" ticket.

It's a start.

Almost 60 years ago -- during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower -- construction of the Interstate Highway System began. Inspired by the German Autobahn, it was specifically intended to be a system of superhighways -- with traffic flowing at speeds of at least 70 MPH. Much higher speeds were anticipated -- and designed for. There are portions of the Interstate system that were laid out with 100-plus MPH average speeds in mind. By implication, speed limits would have been considerably higher.

But, let's stick with 70-75 average speeds for just a moment -- and reflect on Texas' 85 MPH maximum today.

In the late 1950s, when the Interstate system was being laid out, the typical new car had manual drum brakes at all four corners, rode on skinny (by modern standards) whitewall bias-ply tires, had loosey-goosey steering and a suspension not far removed from what was used in Model Ts: Leaf springs, non-independent rear axle -- perhaps shock absorbers. Really bouncy ones. That's it. No anti-sway bars, no four wheel independent suspension -- let alone four wheel disc brakes with ABS. And yet, the very smart -- and very sober-minded -- men who designed the Interstate system considered that the average car of circa 1958 (and the average driver of circa 1958) was sufficiently competent to safely handle steady-state cruising speeds of around 70-75 MPH.

It is nearly 60 years later -- but we're rarely allowed to travel faster. In fact, it's a fairly recent development that we're even allowed to drive at speeds that were allowable in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. Just 16 years have passed since the federal 55 MPH National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) was finally repealed. For almost 20 years prior, motorists were routinely mulcted by costumed enforcers for "speeding" -- that is, for driving at speeds that were formerly lawful and well within the designed-for speeds envisioned by the engineers who laid out the Interstates… back when Eisenhower was in office.

Today, we can once more drive at late 1950s speeds -- and not worry about "speeding" tickets. Celebration!

But people might ask whether, just perhaps, it might be reasonable to reconsider circa 1950s speed limits in light of the exponentially higher limits of modern cars. If it was "safe" and "reasonable" for a 1958 Chevy with drum brakes and bias-plys to operate at 70, what of a 2013 Chevy with high-performance four-wheel disc brakes and 17-inch alloy wheels shod with modern radials designed for safe travel at continuous speeds in excess of 130 MPH? There isn't a new (or recent vintage) car that isn't inherently safer (more controllable, less likely to crash) at 90 MPH than any car of 1958 -- or 1968 (or 1978) -- was at 70. Yet speed limits are, for the most part, just about back to where they were circa 1970.

So, while the 85 MPH max in Texas is good news, it's also sad news. It is a barometer of the extent to which the public has been brainwashed -- and browbeaten -- on the matter of "speeding." Few know much, if anything, about the Interstate system's origins as a superhighway system -- let alone that 70-75 was considered routine (and legal) more than 40 years ago. But they do remember the NMSL -- and Drive 55 -- and so are grateful to be allowed to run 70-75 once more. Eighty-five seems downright sparkling. Except that on that lonesome Texas highway -- with the road straight and stretching to what seems like infinity -- running 85 is damn near boring.

Ask any Texan.

A real limit on that road (and many other roads) would somewhere in the neighborhood of 120. Many drivers -- in countless modern cars -- could safely handle much higher speeds. They do so routinely (and safely) on the first Interstate Highway System -- Germany's Autobahn. But that would mean less revenue. Less payin' paper. Less excuse for the dons of the insurance mafia to ladle out "surcharges."

Perhaps by 2030 we'll be able to lawfully drive as fast as we should have been allowed to drive back in 1990.

But don't count on it. There's too much revenue at stake.

 

 

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.