NMA E-Newsletter #190: Some Tips from the Master

During his 30 years leading the NMA, Jim Baxter penned thousands of letters, editorials and emails supporting drivers’ rights. And the good news is he’s still at it. Jim recently forwarded us the letter below, which he submitted for publication in a local newspaper.

Not only is it reassuring to know that Jim is still fighting the good fight, his letter provides us all with a great example to follow as we advocate for motorists’ issues in our own communities.

At only three paragraphs long, Jim’s letter packs a lot of powerful points into a small package. How many of us can even clear our throats in that amount of space? Yet, Jim logically stakes out his position, backs it up with facts, puts local policymakers on notice and manages to explain a fairly complex traffic engineering principle (85th percentile speed) in only 258 words. Great communicators know the value of brevity. For example, the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words long. (By comparison, we’ve already used 162 words for this introduction, and we’re not done.)

Jim also focuses on a single issue, setting speed limits, and hammers it home. It’s tempting to take on more than one issue or to throw in every supporting point you can think of, hoping something will stick. Don’t do it. You’ll lose your reader faster than a red-light camera flash at a Chicago intersection. And the newspaper editor will be less likely to publish your letter.

It also helps that Jim knows as much about setting proper speed limits as anyone. Before you tackle a local traffic issue, do a little research. Check out the issues pages on the NMA website. Attend a local community meeting or hearing on the subject. You’ll quickly become an expert, plus you’ll hone your own powers of persuasion.

Finally, Jim builds his credibility by noting his background with the NMA. Nothing heavy-handed, but enough to tell the reader he knows what he’s talking about. If you have relevant experience or training, let the editor and the reader know. Here is Jim’s letter in its entirety:

Setting Speed Limits

The speed limit controversy concerning County Highway V in the Town of Lodi exposes many of the myths surrounding this subject. Establishing a speed limit that optimizes safety, efficient movement of traffic, and voluntary compliance is a well-researched process. That process is not a political popularity contest, nor does it result from petitions generated by roadside residents.

A traffic engineering study, including a legitimate speed survey, can readily determine the proper speed limit for any public road, including County Highway V. The primary objective is to determine the speed of vehicles under free flowing traffic conditions (the speed survey) and then set the speed limit at a level that accommodates/legalizes 85 percent of the vehicles that were surveyed. Additional investigation should focus on roadway or roadside features that WOULD NOT be observed or recognized by passing motorists. If these features represent an unexpected safety problem the first option should be to correct the deficiency. If this is not feasible a warning or advisory sign should be installed. Reducing the speed limit will not materially affect the safety problem.

It has been conclusively proven in state and federal studies that changing the numbers on speed limit signs, up or down, on secondary roads like County V has very little effect on actual vehicle speeds. Setting speed limits substantially below the speed of prevailing traffic will disrupt traffic flow and can increase accident rates. Such limits also destroy motorists’ trust in the validity of speed limits and thereby undermine the value of speed limits as a useful traffic control strategy.

James J. Baxter
Dane, Wisconsin 53529

(Personal note: I am the past President of the National Motorists Assn. and have dealt with the issue of speed zoning and speed limits for 30 years.)

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