By Noah Alcala Bach,
The Texas Tribune
On an icy February morning in 2021, slippery roads and limited visibility prompted a chain reaction of crashing cars on Interstate 35W in Fort Worth, eventually leading to a pileup of 133 vehicles that left six people dead.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg believes a bill he authored — going into effect Sept. 1 — could have prevented that.
“That’s an instance when we know there were conditions that led to a catastrophic pileup,” Canales said. “It was studied by the federal government and the national highway agency, and ultimately their findings were that variable speed limits could have mitigated and completely prevented this accident from happening.”
House Bill 1885, signed into law this June, empowers local Texas Department of Transportation engineers — without approval from the statewide transportation commissioners — to temporarily change speed limits for a portion of a road or highway. The variable speed limit can be applied during roadway construction and maintenance, as well as inclement weather conditions like heavy fog, ice or rain.
The altered speed limit would be in effect only when it’s posted on signs notifying drivers of the change and it can’t be lower than 10 miles under the regular speed limit.
“If we’re not able to alter or modify the speed limit to reflect the current conditions, safety is in jeopardy,” Canales said.
Canales said there are a variety of mechanisms to notify drivers of the changing speed limit.
“It could be a mobile digital sign that you see, oftentimes used on a trailer, it could be on any of the TxDOT signs, it could actually be a physical sign that is laid over one of the original — it’s whatever communicates to the drivers speed limit change as per state law,” Canales said.
In 2013, House Bill 2204 allowed TxDOT to try a pilot program testing the effectiveness of variable speed limits.
In summer 2014, the agency set up variable speed limits in Temple, San Antonio and Eastland County and collected data analyzed by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Canales said the findings helped move this bill along almost a decade later.
“That pilot demonstrated that variable speed limits resulted in a safety benefit at each location where it was implemented. The motorists clearly understood the purpose of it and as that program continued in Texas, it concluded we could benefit from a statewide program, which is what this bill in September will do,” Canales said.
Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, sponsored the bill in the Senate, applying his experience from two decades ago as a TxDOT commissioner from 1997 to 2005.
He said that once a month he would get a massive binder with different projects and proposals he had to approve. Approving speed limits changes was among those duties, but oftentimes he found the bureaucracy came at the cost of public safety.
Nichols said in the past, similar bills have passed in the Senate but sputtered in the House because members believed it was a strategy to set up speed traps.
“Everybody was concerned and had speeding tickets in their mind, not safety in construction zones,” Nichols said. “We did a little more educating on it this time and it flew through both chambers pretty well.”
The bill passed the House by a 99-47 vote this year. It was approved in the Senate 25-6.
“Transportation is a very nonpartisan issue. The roads belong to everybody,” Nichols said. “I don’t care which party you’re in. All parties want good transportation and safe roads.”