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Sunday, May 5, 2002

New 55 mph speed limit hard to enforce in court, says DA

HOUSTON (AP) - Harris County's chief prosecutor says he expects to lose many cases involving violators of the area's new 55 mph speed limit.

The reduced speed limit is one component of the state's plan to reduce ozone pollution in the eight-county Houston region to meet U.S. Clean Air Act limits by 2007. Ground level ozone is a major component of smog, and nitrogen oxides, which the speed limit is intended to reduce, contributes to ozone formation.

Without the lowered speeds, the area risked losing federal transportation money.

The reduced speed limit is now in force throughout Harris, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Montgomery, Liberty, Chambers and Waller counties.

Under Texas law, motorists who exceed posted limits are assumed to be driving in an unsafe, imprudent manner. But they actually are ticketed for driving in an unsafe manner, not because they went over a speed limit.

In a letter to Harris County Attorney Michael Stafford, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal wrote that state law could allow a motorist to argue that while he exceeded the speed limit, he was nonetheless driving in a safe manner, the Houston Chronicle reported Saturday.

"I believe that it would be difficult to convince a jury that a speed in excess of 55 is unreasonable, given the historical fact a speed of 70 was considered by the Texas Transportation Commission to be reasonable and prudent a few short weeks ago," Rosenthal wrote.

The problem with the new speed limit is that it was set for environmental and not safety reasons, he said.

Stafford plans to use Rosenthal's argument when he appears before the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission on June 5 to ask the agency to return speed limits in the eight counties to 70 mph.

Stafford is trying to persuade the commission to substitute another measure for the lowered speed limit, such as tighter controls on industrial pollution.

He said he will present the TNRCC with a highway safety expert's findings that a 55-mph speed limit creates dangers because motorists drive at vastly different speeds.

Stafford said he believes the TNRCC's three-member panel will restore the old speed limit.

"It's premature to talk about how it will come out," said TNRCC spokesman Patrick Crimmins. "We'd love to (increase) the speed limit if we could. But we have to replace it with something that will reduce emissions."

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