Many car enthusiasts consider Germany’s Autobahn the holy grail of high-speed highway systems, but it may someday get competition from California, as a senator there has just introduced a bill which proposes adding lanes without speed limits to two major highways.
It’s called Senate Bill 319, and it’s basically a plan to reduce vehicle emissions by keeping folks out of traffic. Here’s the juicy part of the bill introduced last week by Senator John Moorlach:
This bill would require the department to initiate a project to construct two additional traffic lanes on northbound and southbound Interstate Route 5 and State Route 99, and would prohibit the imposition of a maximum speed limit for those traffic lanes.
You read that right. Not only would the new lanes not have a speed limit, it would be illegal for them to have a speed limit.
(Although the state could just legislate a speed limit anyways, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The proposal appears to be a response to a high-speed rail system that was supposed to reduce the stress that California’s increasing population has placed on the roadways, but that has been thoroughly struggling. Just last week at the State of the State address, Governor Gavin Newsom talked about the project’s issues, and talked about drastically reducing its size, with the Sacramento Bee writing:
In his first State of the State speech, Newsom said what many have long thought: The state’s high-speed rail project, which has ballooned in price from $45 billion to $77 billion, is out of control and needs trimming. The governor later added the project otherwise would run out of money with nothing to show for it except “angst, frustration and finger-pointing.”
Instead of trying to link to the Bay Area, Newsom said he will focus on finishing the line currently under construction that will run 171 miles through the Valley from Merced to Bakersfield. He said it could open by 2027.
So as an alternative to this rail system, and to reduce vehicle idle time and thus greenhouse gas emissions, Senate Bill 319 proposes using the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund—which is fed by California’s Cap and Trade emissions compliance system—to build four new traffic lanes (two each way) on two roads that are “integral components of California’s highway system and provide means of long distance travel for Californians.”
Automobile Magazine’s story on this topic does state that the bill “would implement a functional limit of 100 mph,” with heavy fines associated with breaking into the triple digits. However, the bill seems to propose truly limitless speed, as the 100 mph part of the bill referenced by Automobile appears to just be a proposed amendment to the current Vehicle Code that would exclude this new proposed speed limitless highway from the current 100 mph rule. Moorlach confirmed this on his website, writing:
the 100 mph limit is current law, which my bill would eliminate for the four lanes. And, another critical detail, the lanes would be separated.
Moorlach’s website also includes a press release on the proposal, which reads, in part:
Replacing the defunct High-Speed Rail project – or at least providing an expedited transportation option until a substantial High-Speed Rail segment can be built decades in the future – with dedicated lanes would let Californians speedily and safely traverse the Northern and Southern parts of the state. Like the German Autobahn, the new lanes would be designed for both high-speed and safety. According to a World Health Organization study, estimated road traffic deaths per 100,000 people is 4.1 in Germany, while 12.4 in the United States.
“If Sacramento is serious about allowing Californians to travel between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and High-Speed Rail will take too long to build, let’s construct four additional lanes with no maximum speed limit to provide for high speed on a safe road,” stated Senator Moorlach.
I’ve reached out to the California Air Resources Board to get their take on this whole idea, because it was only recently that Germany was talking about actually establishing maximum speed limits on the now-unlimited Autobahn as a way of reducing emissions. I’ve also reached out to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to see what they think about the safety aspect of this proposal.
There are obviously still lots of questions that need to be answered, here. How much will it cost? Will there be funding to keep it as glass-smooth as Germany’s Autobahn? Will drivers have to go through any training to drive on this bit of roadway? Will California crank up its car safety inspections to be as ridiculously thorough as Germany’s?
More importantly, is this going to reduce congestion and emissions that much more than simply building two more lanes on these highways and using the existing speed limit?
This seems like a dream to me, but as a car nut, I can’t say I mind it.
Update Feb. 20, 2019 3:55 P.M. ET: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has responded to Jalopnik’s request for input on this bill, writing in an email:
Drivers going too fast remains one of the biggest unsolved problems on our roads. More than 10,000 deaths occurred in speed-related crashes in the U.S. in 2016 alone. Many states have gone in the wrong direction by raising their speed limits. This proposal in California is dangerous in the extreme. High speeds make a crash more likely because it takes longer to stop or slow down. They also make collisions more deadly because crash energy increases exponentially as speeds go up. Higher speeds make it more difficult for drivers to brake enough in an emergency so that a crash becomes survivable.
In an answer to a follow-up question about how it is that Germany can make a speed limitless system work, the IIHS representative told me:
Death rates on U.S. highways were once lower than on Germany’s Autobahn system but that changed as states began raising speed limits on rural interstates in the late 1980s. We haven’t done a comparison recently, but there are important differences besides speed that make driving in the U.S. more hazardous than in Germany. A big difference is that traffic safety laws are often more strictly enforced in Europe. Belt use is higher, the minimum licensing age is higher, where speed limits are in place, automated enforcement is used widely, and with extensive networks of public transit, drinking and driving is less of a problem – differences that all contribute to the high death toll in the U.S.