The Good Old Days of Speed Limits

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Remember when towns wanted speed limits set for safety? Not me. I’m not that old. But they used to.

In 1953 Hull, Massachusetts police chief Daniel Short wrote to state officials:

Our accident analysis shows that thirteen (13) serious accidents occurred in 1952 on George Washington Boulevard, a State Road, running between Hingham and Nantasket Beach. Route 3A in Hingham has been posted with speed limit signs, but for some reason the road to Nantasket has not been so posted. I think that if this George Washington Boulevard was posted, it would greatly reduce the accidents on that road, and would help us in enforcing the speed laws. Would you be kind enough to take the necessary steps, in order that this matter might be taken care of, before the summer season sets in?

He didn’t say “lower the speed limit.” He just asked for signs, and explained why.

In response, Massachusetts DPW expedited an engineering study and posted 45. The new, posted limit was faster than the 40 mph unposted speed limit, but that wasn’t important. The goal was a realistic speed limit. They wanted the flow of traffic to be legal, and the maniacs to get tickets.

How times change. The town of Milford recently made a similar request for signs on an unposted road that should be posted 45. Except they didn’t ask the state to determine and post a speed limit. They asked specifically for 30 mph, even though their own data said the limit should be 45 and could not legally be lower than 40. They want everybody to be speeding so anybody can get a ticket.

These days the only thing 99% of town officials care about is getting the lowest possible number on a sign. Safety is the first thing on their lips, but the last thing on their minds.

To find out what people want, look at what they do.

When towns ask engineers what the speed limit should be the answer is often 35, 40, or higher. “Appalled” politicians veto the change, because 35 and 40 are greater than 30. They think they can get away with enforcing 30. They had not hired a consultant to get them a safe speed limit. They had hired a consultant to get them a low speed limit.

In 1953 the unposted speed limits were treated as guidelines: the safe speed is probably 20 to 40 but should always be judged based on conditions, not arbitrary numbers. Now they are treated as divine word: thou shalt not exceed 30 unless granted permission, and we will never grant permission.

I got that old letter from somebody researching the speed limit for his ticket. It was a “gotcha!” trap where police said the limit was 35 even though the only visible sign said 45. Police were wrong. Traffic court judges didn’t care. It took a trip to the Appellate Division and a nonrefundable appeal fee to toss a ticket that should never have been written. Because we’re more concerned with numbers than safety.

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