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Texas: Home Of The 80 MPH Highway

It was driving as usual for Steve Masters as he hit 80 mph along Interstate 20, the new speed limit along some wide-open stretches of rural Texas roadways.

"Most people were going over 80 anyway," the 52-year-old El Paso resident said as he filled the tank of his sports utility vehicle at a gas station outside of Pecos in far West Texas. "Interstate roadways are built to handle a speed limit over 80 mph."

Texas now lays claim to the highest speed limit in the country. Signs indicating the change from 75 mph to 80 mph began going up along 521 miles of interstates in 10 sparsely populated counties just days after state transportation officials approved the increase late last month.

The limit is 80 on an 89-mile stretch of I-20 between Monahans and the Interstate 10 interchange at the edge of the Jeff Davis Mountains. Same for the 432 miles between Kerrville and El Paso on I-10.

The stretches are mostly flat and straight and get far less traffic than other parts of Texas.

An Idaho motorist at a roadside rest area said the concept was simple.

"It gets you there faster," Mark Beck, 22, said.

One out-of-state motorist, though, said going 80 mph just isn't safe, echoing sentiments of groups that think the move was shortsighted and will lead to more accidents and deaths.

"It doesn't matter if it's wide open or not," said Jason Nickerson, 29, who was returning to his Mesa, Ariz., home after a couple of months on the road. "Eighty, I think, is a little excessive. Cars are just as much a deadly weapon as a gun."

Texas transportation officials said fatalities dropped when the speed limit was raised to 75 mph on some roads, which mirrored similar data when the national 55 mph limit was boosted. Thirteen states have speed limits of 75 or higher on some roads.

"It doesn't mean we aren't going to be watching the accidents out there, watching traffic," said Carol Rawson, deputy director for traffic operations for the Texas Department of Transportation. "If it's causing a problem, then we'll set the speed appropriately."

Masters, who was headed to Wichita Falls for a Shriners convention, said cars are safer at higher speeds now because of front, rear and side airbags.

"If you're moving with the flow of traffic, I see no safety concerns," he said. "If you don't mind spending money on the gas, it's great."

The Department of Energy estimates that every 5 mph over 60 costs drivers an extra 20 cents per gallon.

The new limit is just that, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said

"That means if you go 1 mph over the speed limit, you run the risk or the possibility of being pulled over by a state trooper," he said.

In 1999, legislators approved raising the speed limit from 70 to 75. Last year, they unanimously approved the bump to 80 on selected roadways. Transportation officials found that 85 percent of drivers were going between 76 and 79 mph.

The higher limit applies to drivers of cars, light trucks and light trucks pulling trailers during daylight hours. Drivers of trucks, truck tractors, trailers, and semitrailers are limited to 70 mph. The limits drop to 65 mph after dark for all vehicles

Some truckers can't come close to 70 mph. Earl Hawley, a West Virginia trucker, drives a company rig that's got an engine governor that won't allow him to surpass 68 mph.

He'd go 80 mph if he could, the 49-year-old said while at a rest stop along I-20.

"It's more beneficial to me, time-wise," said Hawley, who drives for a Murfreesboro, Tenn., company. "I get paid by the mile. It'd be more miles per hour I could cover."

Hawley said he thinks human nature will prevail.

"They're going to be going 85 to 90 mph," he said. "I'm going to have to drive on the shoulder."

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