Any Westerner knows that hitting the highways at full speed is one of life’s true joys. When federal laws pushed back top speed limits on the nation’s highways to 55 mph, drives across New Mexico and other land-rich states became excruciatingly long.
The current 75 mph speed limit on many highways came as a blessed relief. Naturally, Westerners do understand that driving fast isn’t fuel-efficient, making it bad for the environment. It’s also dangerous and costs lives (a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health attributes more than 12,000 deaths to increased speed limits between 1995 and 2005.) Still, for many people living out West, the risks are worth it. Take this week, when holiday travelers will be setting out to share Thanksgiving celebrations with friends and family. A trip from Santa Fe to Las Cruces, for example, is easily an hour or more longer at 55 mph. Folks traveling farther out — to Colorado, Oklahoma or into Texas, know that a fast speed limit can cut hours off the road trip. Those hours can seem like an eternity to a family traveling with young children.
Texas, though, as Texas is wont to do, is pushing the limits, this time on speed. On Texas State Highway 130 near Austin, officials decided to raise a toll-road speed limit to 85 mph. That’s the fastest in the country. The road is designed to ease commuter traffic on congested Interstate 35 (and automobile drivers will pay 15 cents a mile for the privilege of zipping along). Last week, the first fatality took place on the road — built by a private company but owned by the state (there’s a split on tolls). Before the new road opened in October, a few stretches of Texas and Utah highway had speeds posted at 80 mph, still slow compared to the days when Montana’s limit was whatever a driver thought prudent.
Should the toll road experiment work out, faster speed limits could be coming for stretches of highway in far West Texas, for example. There, the people are few and far between, and as the Robert Earl Keen Jr. song points out, “The Road Goes on Forever.” Driving home for Thanksgiving in New Mexico, with mountains, deer and space that is less wide and not as open, we still remain thankful that days of crawling along at 55 mph are over. Unlike Texas and Utah, though, New Mexico shouldn’t allow speed limits to zoom higher. Too much faster, and driving the highways would be less safe and do more harm to the world around us. In this instance, New Mexico has it just about right.