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Take caution over speed-limit increases

Much of what we’ve read about the Texas Department of Transportation considering a proposal to increase speed limits on several area highways has focused on the possible effects on air pollution, and that’s understandable.

Our levels of ozone are higher than the EPA’s national health standard, and motor vehicles are one of the biggest sources of pollutants that cause the problem.

Since increasing speed limits is expected to raise the amount of pollutants that vehicles emit, TxDOT must offset expected increases in order to get environmental clearance to raise the limits.

The Regional Transportation Council has agreed to fund $54 million worth of projects meant to decrease car emissions in the region, and many of these — including traffic signal retiming — are also aimed at improving traffic flow.

The speed-limit increases, if approved, could come as early as this summer, officials said. The proposal calls for raising speed limits on Interstate 35 — including the east and west branches — in Denton County to up to 75 mph in some areas.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is recommending that TxDOT go even further by increasing speed limits along U.S. Highway 377 and U.S. Highway 380 in certain sections of the county, according to Chris Klaus, a senior program manager for NCTCOG.

Officials tell us the proposed changes would essentially restore speed limits that were lowered in 2001 over environmental concerns and shouldn’t raise safety concerns.

We’re not so sure about that last part.

Sure, the proposed speed limits aren’t that much higher than current limits — an increase of only 5 to 10 mph in most cases, and officials point out that many of the targeted highway sections are outside of urban cores, typically in suburbs and rural counties and that the roads are equipped to handle the higher speeds.

Unfortunately, there’s no sure way to measure driver aptitude beyond the standard state test, and we doubt that many successful candidates take that test while texting, adjusting the stereo or eating breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Few of us need such distractions — age, experience, disposition, stress levels, road conditions, proper vehicle maintenance and several hundred other factors — can affect our ability to negotiate traffic while traveling at high speeds.

We’ve all driven long, deserted stretches of interstate where higher speed limits would have been a blessing, but we don’t know of many such areas in Denton County. Typically, area roads are jammed with vehicles and the typical driver is attempting to juggle one or more of the distractions listed above while pushing the speed limit to the max.

In our experience, most motorists typically drive above posted speed limits. Thus, many cars traveling through an area where the posted limit is 75 mph will likely be driving at or close to 85 mph or faster.

Officials tell us that the proposal to increase speed limits is part of a regional transportation plan aimed at improving air quality and commutes, and we’re in favor of both of those goals.

But we need to make sure that safety concerns are given proper consideration, and we encourage transportation officials to proceed with caution to make sure that roadways chosen for higher speed limits can accommodate the changes.

We have no doubt that many drivers are equipped to drive faster safely and will not take higher limits as a license to punch up their speeds to unreasonable levels. Responsible motorists will be able to drive at their former speeds and do so legally.

Hopefully, that will be incentive enough to abide by the law and keep speeds within reasonable limits.