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There's a lot of wide open spaces out there in Texas, and a lot of really great distances between the cities and towns that populate the 254 counties of the Lone Star State.

Perhaps that what Legislators were thinking recently when they approved a speed limit increase on certain Texas highways that will allow daytime motorists to cruise 80 MPH in order to get from one point to the next, the fastest legal speed limit in the entire United States.

Or maybe it's because Texans just like to go really fast - regardless the speed limit. That's how one lawmaker put it during the legislative debate, citing Texas motorists disregard for posted speed limits as they travel down highways across the state.

The speed limit change actually affects only two stretches of rural highway in remote areas of the state. Speed signs are being changed in 10 mostly rural counties of West Texas: a 432-mile stretch of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Kerrville, and 89 miles of Interstate 20 between Monahans and the I-10 interchange at the cusp of the Jeff Davis Mountains.

The move represents a major change from a U.S. Congress mandated national 55 mph speed limit set back in the 1970s. That law has since been abolished though many states still conform to the standard. Twelve states besides Texas have speed limits of 75 mph on some roads.

Highway safety advocates have expressed criticism over the increased speed limit law, saying higher limits will cause more traffic fatalities. While state officials say the highways designated for the higher speed limit can handle the safety concerns, opponents to the measure say national research proves that the faster a car goes, the more damage sustained by drivers and passengers when a collision occurs.

But state Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson says his department has studied the issue and disagrees with the previous studies. He says a lot of considerations are involved in determining whether a roadway is safe for higher speed traffic, and that the highways in question can meet the demand for faster traffic.

Mike Behrens, executive director of the state transportation agency, said the new speed limit will affect only a fraction of the state's 70,000 highway miles.
The affected roads are mostly straight shots through the West Texas flatlands that get relatively light traffic. He says studies indicate that 85 percent of drivers on those highways are already cruising between 76 mph and 79 mph.

The biggest drawback, say state officials, may not be safety concerns but economic woes. Experts say gas mileage decreases rapidly after 60 mph. The U.S. government estimates that every 5 mph over 60 is like paying an extra 20 cents per gallon for gas.

That's a problem, say state officials, of every individual motorist.

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