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drive, she said

"A mother, father and their twin daughters were killed on an autobahn near Baden-Baden [Germany] on Monday after getting out of their car which had been in a crash. A third car ploughed into the family as they were waiting for help."


This happened at the end of October. Crashes occur wherever there are cars, but the famed autobahn series of highways in Germany are usually noted for their better-than-average safety, despite many sections posting no speed limit. From roads expensively engineered and maintained to make high rates of speed both manageable and safe, to a car culture that deeply embeds "keep to the right except to pass" as more than a suggestion, to drivers who receive intensive training, statistics indicate there is indeed a place for high-speed road travel, unfettered by government apron strings.

That horrific crash in October? I'm only armchairing, but getting out of their car left them more vulnerable and exposed than most collisions would have. The third car apparently ripped their car in two, pushing the argument that there was no safe place on the side of the road that day. But as automotive fatalities continue to drop in most places, it's about an increase in the safety of cars far more than the improvement of drivers.

The speed argument is for others to make, and they do. If you're an excellent driver in a high-performance car, of course you could drive faster than the posted speed limits. But with so many other factors in play – the condition of our roads, the abilities of those around you – I'm not surprised both sides of the debate get so heated. And the biggest wild card of all isn't any of those things: it's human nature. Left to our own devices, there are many who will perform admirably, even heroically. And there are many who will behave like idiots.

The 100-km/h posted speed limit on many of our highways in Ontario is artificial. We know it. Gridlock's angry grip is the only thing preventing a flow that usually sits around 120, or more. Other provinces have upped sections of their highways to 110 km/h, and I've never noticed any exuberant overdriving as a result. Granted, when you're cutting through Saskatchewan on the Trans-Canada at 110, huge semis will thunder by you as if they can't wait to get out. Maybe Saskatchewan should be the test site for Canada's first autobahn.

As some enter the hunt for higher speed limits, another element is coming into play: fuel consumption. As costs escalate, and manufacturers race each other to the highest output on the smallest input, the disparity between drivers on our roads is only going to escalate.

Already, those seeking to max out their fuel economy are called stubborn (in polite company) as they stick to the speed limit, or sometimes just under. Technically, if they stay to the right, there should be no issue. But unpredictable exit and entrance highway designs and human nature (there it is again) are brewing a not-so-perfect storm. Does my perceived right to go with (or establish) the flow of traffic trump your perceived right to maximize your fuel economy?

Many U.S. states have a higher speed limit than ours. Utah and Texas both have 80-mph (nearly 130-km/h) freeways, and Texas announced it is topping that: the 66-kilometre four-lane toll road – Highway 130 – between Seguin and Mustang Ridge is now an 85-mph (nearly 137-km/h) zone. It's been called a good way to ease up on the congestion of the Interstate 35 around Austin.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the road was brought to fruition by the efforts of Texas Governor Rick Perry. His quest for the raised speed limit was personal to him: 12 years ago, he and his driver were pulled over doing 75 mph in a 55-mph zone, because of congestion the new highway circumvents. "I'm not unlike, I guess, most citizens of the state," Perry said at a news conference after the traffic stop. "I was frustrated and in a hurry."

(Perhaps this new feather in Texas's cap will erase Perry's other notable quote, that evolution is "a theory that is out there.")

There are other differences between the German autobahn and Texas's limited version. Texas recorded its first fatality between a Civic and a Tahoe on the same day the toll road officially opened, and wild hogs caused four more. Reports haven't indicated how fast the vehicles were going, but it's worth noting, again, that it's not speed that kills: it's stopping.



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