Monday, May 29, 2006

DALLAS — One of the fleetest critters in western Texas, so they say, is the kooky-looking bird called the chaparral, or “roadrunner.” The main tourist attraction in Fort Stockton is a huge statue of an 11-by-22-foot roadrunner called Paisano Pete, who greets visitors from atop the town’s “Welcome” sign.

But on parts of Interstate Highways 10 and 20 around Fort Stockton — heading west toward El Paso and east toward San Antonio and Dallas — the gawky bird no longer will be the fastest thing going.

Last week, state highway officials in Fort Stockton unveiled the first 80-mph speed limit sign — reportedly the fastest posted speed limit in the nation.

Rep. Pete Gallego, who represents a district bigger than Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined and sponsored the bill, said it will only add to the comfort of drivers who travel the desolate highway.

“Probably the only difference might be that police write fewer speeding tickets,” he said.

Some safety officials and energy conservationists predict the additional speed allowance can mean nothing but more fatal accidents.

“People don’t survive crashes at that speed,” said Tom Smith, director of the Texas office for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.

“This will result in more deaths,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “You get somewhere faster, but at what cost?”

Mr. Gallego said Texas Department of Transportation specialists had studied the situation and found that in the three years since the speed limit in that area was increased from 70 to 75 mph, the number of fatalities had actually dropped.

The highways, among the most remote in the U.S., are generally four-lane, well-maintained and straight as an arrow mile after mile. It is often 10 to 15 miles between exit ramps. The affected highways total about 400 miles.

Although much of the traffic on these east-west thoroughfares is heavy freight-bearing trucks, the limit remains 70 mph for them. The speed limit at night for all drivers is 65 mph.

State transportation officials say they tested the effects of the new law before it was even passed in the Legislature and found that 85 percent of drivers traveling in that area already were driving between 76 and 79 mph.

Told that some opponents say that most American drivers routinely drive 5 to 10 miles over the marked speed limit and that police officers generally allow at least a 5 mph leeway, Mr. Gallego laughed: “Doesn’t work that way out here. We’ve got some really lonely stretches of highways out here. If the speed limit is 65 and they catch you going 66, they’ll stop you, just to have somebody to talk to.”

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