Texas legislator Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) unveils an 80 mph speed limit signEnlarge Photo
If you've ever driven through the American West and Midwest, you know some of the roads can be desolate. There are rivers of blacktop that stretch miles into the distance, making long, straight lines across hills, through towns, and over streams without deviating more than a few inches left or right.
To folks just passing by, that kind of topography can seem interesting, like a novelty. But for locals, truckers, and others used to the sight, it can be deadly -- metaphorically and literally -- causing them to "zone out". The situation is a bit like that in Western Australia, where 20 percent of auto accidents are caused by drivers who find themselves entranced by the long, monotonous roads.
And that may explain why two states out West -- Idaho and Wyoming -- are boosting speed limits on select highways to 80 miles per hour.
In Idaho, the bill authorizing the increase sailed through the Senate, squeaked through the house, and landed on the governor's desk. The legislation doesn't automatically upgrade every highway to 80 mph, but instead gives the Idaho Transportation Department the authority to make such decisions, based on a variety of data gathered from engineering and traffic studies.
Though there were quite a few who objected to the bill, it passed in part because Idaho's neighbor, Utah, implemented a similar law several years ago. Studies show that accident rates in Utah haven't increased as a result of the new 80 mph zones, and the reason appears to be that motorists aren't driving any faster now than they were before. In other words, they were already going 80.
Wyoming's legislation raised similar concerns, with detractors insisting that 85 would soon become the new de facto speed limit, leading to more highway deaths. Their arguments were bolstered by a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which showed that between 1995 to 2005, over 12,500 fatalities were directly linked to increases in speed limits.
On the other side of the debate, the National Motorists Association's John Bowman says that 80 mph is actually a safety measure. As we've seen in other instances, the biggest cause of accidents isn't speed, it's differences in speed. (Though it bears mentioning that accidents occurring at higher speeds have a greater likelihood of causing serious injuries and deaths.)
However, based on its best estimates, the Wyoming Department of Transportation expects no uptick in collisions. As with Idaho, 80 mph zones will be set by the state, and they'll be limited to four-lane roads. The DOT says that it will study traffic data, and if the uptick in speed limit causes more accidents or fatalities, they'll dial it back down to 75.