Thursday, November 26, 2009

Texas Maximum Speed Law Explained

In my continuing quest to roll back the frontiers of ignorance, and bring understanding and light to the masses, I present to you Texas’s "maximum" speed law.

The Texas maximum speed law consists of three parts. An overall definition –part (a), a two part more specific definition –part (b)(1) and part (b)(2) and then five specific examples where slower speeds would be necessary.-Part (c) 1-5 We shall look at all of this in turn.

Part One

Sec. 545.351 (a)  An operator may not drive at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances then existing.

When the term "operator" here is used, it is a reference to the vehicle the person is using. [1] Thus, this statute applies to drivers of automobiles, bicycles, horses, motorcycles, delivery trucks and ostriches. How fast a operator can go varies due to circumstances, and the operational capabilities of the vehicle under consideration, and even the skill of the operator himself.

A prudent speed for one type of vehicle may be far more or less than another type of vehicle. Say a 1976 Jaguar XJ6C compared to 1985 Yugo GV, for example.

A particular speed that is prudent for one driver may not be the same for a different driver in that very same vehicle. Perhaps the route is more familiar to one than the other. A prudent speed at night is different for that same trip in daylight.

Reasonable does not mean "common" or "normal" by the way. You don’t have to go very far on the public way to witness common behaviors that are anything close to reasonable, in the light of what this section of the law demands.

It is not reasonable to expect your automobile will be able to stop fast in snowy conditions just because you have four wheel drive.

Thus one is expected under the law to act in a reasonable and prudent manner.

Part Two

Sec. 545.351 (b)(1)  An operator may not drive a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions and having regard for actual and potential hazards then existing;

This part is very similar to part one, but with the addition of a qualifier for "reasonable and prudent" that goes beyond current conditions. One must also act with regard to hazards. One must drive slow enough to allow for hazards that could potentially exist.

Again, reasonableness is at play here. In the wee hours of the morning it is reasonable to find a polecat when crossing a creek bottom, but it would not be reasonable to drive with the expectation you would have to avoid a meteor.

Sec. 545.351 (b)(2)  An operator shall control the speed of the vehicle as necessary to avoid colliding with another person or vehicle that is on or entering the highway in compliance with law and the duty of each person to use due care.

This informs those who wish to lawfully use the public road, that one may not go so fast that you would be unable to avoid crashing into slow vehicles on the roadway.

And this portion of the law introduces a new standard of conduct; That public use of the streets imposes on each of us a duty to exercise due care.

Due care refers to the effort made by an ordinarily prudent or reasonable party to avoid either causing property damage or physically harming another person, taking the circumstances into account.

When operating a vehicle on a public street, we need to be sure our vehicle is in working order. We need to be sober and alert. We need to avoid distractions so that we may properly pay attention to our driving. All of this is part of exercising due care on the public way.

Part Three

Sec. 545.351 (c)(1) An operator shall, consistent with Subsections (a) and (b), drive at an appropriate reduced speed if the operator is approaching and crossing an intersection or railroad grade crossing.

I wonder how the phrase "appropriate reduced speed" interacts with the posted speed limit? In other words, you MUST slow down when approaching every intersection, to a speed that is appropriately less than what is posted. Traveling at the speed limit is not a reduced speed from the maximum posted speed limit. Unless one wishes to argue that reasonable and prudent speed (consistent with due care) is faster than the posted speed limit!

Sec. 545.351(c)(2)  An operator shall, consistent with Subsections (a) and (b), drive at an appropriate reduced speed if the operator is approaching and going around a curve

Sec. 545.351(c)(3)  An operator shall, consistent with Subsections (a) and (b), drive at an appropriate reduced speed if the operator is approaching a hill crest

Sec. 545.351 (c)(4) An operator shall, consistent with Subsections (a) and (b), drive at an appropriate reduced speed if the operator is traveling on a narrow or winding roadway;

I will group these three in one section because my comment addresses them all similarly.

Together, these three clauses mean that operators must not drive so fast that they cannot stop in the distance that they are able to see ahead of them. As you drive, imagine that up ahead, just beyond the point that you can see, there is a stationary obstruction in the road (perhaps a log, or even worse, an injured child). You cannot drive so fast that you cannot stop before reaching the object. It does not matter whether the hazard is hidden due to a curve in the road or the crest of a hill, you must be able to stop. It also does not matter if the posted speed limit is higher than the prudent speed or if your autimobile is capable of handling the road at a higher speed. You simply cannot lawfully drive faster than you can see. [2]

Sec. 545.351 (c)(5)  An operator shall, consistent with Subsections (a) and (b), drive at an appropriate reduced speed if a special hazard exists with regard to traffic, including pedestrians, or weather or highway conditions.

Now most of us are good at recognizing inclement weather as a condition requiring reduced speed in order to be prudent, and potholes and downed trees seem self evident. In fact slow traffic being a condition that requires slowing down goes without saying. But look again at what Texas law says is included in "traffic"! Yes, pedestrians.

The maximum speed at any particular place is the speed that the slowest vehicle present is traveling. I think its important to emphasize that the posted speed limit is the maximum speed ever allowed under perfect conditions, with good sight lines, no intersections or traffic conflicts. Drivers must go slower than the posted speed limit for any conditions then existing at that time and particular place that mar that perfection. In fact, the posted speed limit under this statute is too fast if even the potential for a hazard is present!

Such conditions include but are not limited to weather, surface conditions, pedestrians, nightfall, animals and slow or stopped vehicles. If, for example, there is a stopped bus in the lane, the safe speed at that point is zero! If there is a front loader or horse drawn wagon, it sets the reasonable and prudent speed. If there is a bicyclist, he sets the reasonable and prudent speed in the lane he is using at that location. [3]

I am positive that many of you will be shocked at the implications of this plain and straightforward reading of this law. Either this standard for behavior is outlandishly high, or we as a society have fallen a very great distance indeed!

During the holiday season, I am reminded of this sad state of affairs we are in when I again watch the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life. In one place in the film, a despondent George Bailey (James Stewart) drives through a snowstorm with the idea of suicide in his head. As he draws close to the bridge, he loses control of his automobile and crashes into a great tree. I am always struck at the scandal this causes. George Bailey stumbles away from the crash while the property owner is shouting after him; "Who’s going to pay for the damage to my tree?"

The injured tree, suffering a small gash at the most, will have little more than a scar. It is a small scene, and it goes by fast. But it is made clear that a crime has just happened. Good citizens are expected to keep control of their vehicle on the public street. George Bailey has broken yet another public trust.

This law was written in the spirit of that public trust, yet it is universally neglected. Today it would be a scandal if this law were enforced! It is not even deemed applicable when two people die when the maximum speed limit law is broken.

When civility returns to our streets, one part of that will be an awaking of this public trust, and an expectation of it’s observance by our fellow citizens again.

But the good news is, you can be a lawful operator without waiting for it to become fashionable! Yes you can -and ought to- obey this law now! You now know that it is both your moral and legal duty to drive with due care, and alas, you cannot undo the knowing of it.

You will be breaking the law if you travel at the posted speed limit in anything less than the perfect conditions. Think of the awful consequences of being a responsible motorist! You will have to leave for your various destinations earlier than before. You will experience less stress and anxiety. You will have less wear and tear on your automobile. You might even save on some gas.

On the other hand, you will annoy many of your stressed out scofflaw and irresponsible fellow citizens who routinely act without due care. They may say mean things to you. They may honk their horns. They may even try to communicate with sign language, if you get my drift. You could get your feelings hurt.

So there it is. The gauntlet has been thrown down at your feet. You can resolve to do the hard but right thing, or you can give in and continue to be part of the problem.

If you have stuck with this post so far, gentle reader, please go and read this essay too. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now think about what you would rather have for your children to inherit. The culture of speed, or the culture of trust?

Then take a moment to dream. Dream big dreams. Dream that it can happen here.

Let the dream begin with you.
[1] Sec. 545.002.  In this chapter, a reference to an operator includes a reference to the vehicle operated by the operator if the reference imposes a duty or provides a limitation on the movement or other operation of that vehicle.
The maximum speed law (Sec. 545.351) imposes both a duty to use due care, and a limitation on the movement (Speed, obviously) of vehicles. Therefore this statute applies to all things that are vehicles under Texas law.
Sec. 541.201. (23)  "Vehicle" means a device that can be used to transport or draw persons or property on a highway.
This definition is rather inclusive, but it is narrower than the definition of "traffic";
Sec. 541.301.  TRAFFIC.  In this subtitle "traffic" means pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, and conveyances, including vehicles and streetcars, singly or together while using a highway for the purposes of travel.
There are some curious crossovers in the two definitions. Traffic includes herded animals, but if the herded animal is being used to carry property, it will now fit the definition of a vehicle. Put bells on your sheep, and they become vehicles!

[2] Adapted from Bicycles and the basic speed law by Bob Shanteau 12/31/2007 Concepts and phrases are his and used with permission.

[3] Wayne Pein, e-mail dated November 24, 2009 Adapted with permision.


  1. YOU SNEAKY GUY! I KNOW THAT XJ6C. That picture, as Rantwick should well know, was taken in Canada and the auto in question was WELL BELOW the maximum Texas speed at the time.

    Less clear is that the motorist was wearing his helmet at the time, in the interests of being safe so all you annoying cyclists should know you're not the only ones that DO wear those funny hats...

  2. I had a lot of fun with putting that example together!

    Below the the Texas maximum speed limit? Were you operating in a reasonable and prudent manner, exercising due care, or were you on the way of winning your category, hmmm? I expect that you will make some lame excuse about their being a closed coarse time trial or something...

    As to who wears better hats, all I will say is that cyclists have more interesting hair-dos when they take theirs off.

  3. I was operating in a reasonable and prudent matter, exercising due care, as witnessed by the course marshalls who did not see fit to black flag me off the course. And I DID win my category, despite the fact that I had a serious distributor timing problem that limited our acceleration potential. And I passed absolutely NO cyclists in an unsafe manner. My youngest daughter, at the time was six and not yet educated in the need to make a full lane change to pass ANY cyclist, regardless of his/her lane position.

    Sez you that cyclist helmets produce more interesting hair-dos. I've seen both sides...

  4. Thanks for the detailed post - definitely helped me to understand the law a bit better. I dont know if we have a law like that up here in Massachusetts - I wonder if the rates for Wilmington MA car insurance would be much different than for a small town in Texas. Any thoughts? Thanks!