Houston puts brakes on 55-mph limit: Trucking industry objects

| 6/7/2002

State environmental regulators June 5 suspended the controversial 55-mph speed limit on Houston-area freeways, but the change might not take effect until next spring due to public hearings, approval by federal regulators and implementation by Texas transportation officials, the Houston Chronicle reported.

A day earlier, Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered the Texas Department of Transportation to use clean diesel in its Houston-area fleet in an apparent effort to bolster the case for repealing the unpopular 55 mph speed limit.

Regulators cited new federal models showing the amount of nitrogen oxides removed from the air by driving slower was significantly less than originally estimated. Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission Chairman Robert Huston said ongoing scientific evaluations supported the decision. However, the evaluation does not yet support repealing the 55 mph limit for trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more, he added.

"It is absolutely shocking that the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission would actually proceed with a measure that would make Houston highways more dangerous to avoid public pressure over environmental regulations," said Todd Spencer, vice president, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

"In terms of highway safety, the very last thing public officials should be advocating is setting different speed limits for different classes of vehicles using the same roads," Spencer said. "Highways will always be safest when all vehicles are traveling at the same speed. This reality has been confirmed numerous times over the past three decades."

Spencer said a study done by the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Austin found that having trucks travel as little as 5 mph slower than cars nearly doubles the likelihood of a crash. And an increase in the speed variance between cars and trucks to 15 mph (as is being proposed) increases the likelihood of a highway crash by a factor of nine, the study said.

However, the governor would like it if more agencies, such as school districts, county governments, city governments and public transportation entities can be persuaded to follow suit. He said reductions of as much as 20 tons per day of nitrogen oxide emissions could be feasible by 2007 if this were to happen. The department will monitor the program, which aims to have the entire fleet in the Houston-Beaumont region on clean diesel by November.

"While local environmental officials may have a real hot potato on their hands for now, the responsible solution is not to turn trucks into rolling roadblocks on metropolitan highways," Spencer said.

Meanwhile, the Texas Motor Transportation Association criticized the proposal. TMTA President Bill Webb: "Trucks traveling a minimum of 15 mph slower than cars on Houston-area roadways is a recipe for disaster and our regulators should know better than to propose a measure to supposedly save lives by cleaning the air while actually potentially causing the loss of life."
-- Dick Larsen, senior editor