I can’t drive 30

A government traffic engineer told me his team used to routinely review speed limits until they noticed nobody in authority was acting on staff reports. A key feature feature of California’s speed trap law is a requirement to review old speed limits. In New England speed traps don’t expire, they get seniority.

Six months ago the chair of the Saugus, Massachusetts Board of Selectmen called for a speed limit reduction she knew was wrong. She couldn’t drive 25, but asked everybody else to. An engineering consultant’s report out this month confirms speed limits in town are already too low.

Headlines only said the consultant did not recommend reducing speed limits. The facts in the report said speed limits should be increased. I’ve seen this one before in Connecticut. There the First Selectman asked for a speed limit reduction. A state engineer found the speed limit should be raised from 40 to 50. It was a state road so he could have and should have done it. Instead the report only said no reduction was needed.

Knowing your real job is important. The Traffic Commission in Connecticut and the consulting firm TEC in Massachusetts were not doing speed zoning. They were doing public relations.

TEC made some effort to avoid places where the speed limit was obviously too low. But they still managed to find and ignore some.

The basic principle of speed zoning says the guy behind the wheel knows better than the guy behind a desk. That’s why engineers measure traffic speed. That’s why they drive the road for themselves. Behind the wheel, an engineer felt it was safe to go 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. Back behind her desk she forgot all about that.

Since you don’t need a long explanation of every street in a town you’ve never been to, I’ll just look at one: Water Street. See page 25 of the report.

It’s a typical suburban minor arterial. Most of the frontage is a golf course or back sides of lots. Where it is built up the houses are 100 feet apart.

The 85th percentile speed of traffic is 40 mph. Trial runs found the safe speed was between 40 and 50. State rules discourage speed limits above the 95th percentile speed, so 45 is too high. There was not a high crash rate or anything else out of the ordinary so 35 is too low. Consistent with professional and legal standards the only possible recommendation was a 40 mile per hour speed limit.

And here is the problem if you want to work for the government. Existing speed limits were below 40. The customer was asking for a speed limit reduction. Recommending no change was barely acceptable. Recommending an increase was not. The engineer acknowledged recommending no change violated professional standards, but did it anyway.

Where’s the acknowledgement? Two things. The recommended 30 mile per limit is “below the safe speed range.” Dangerously low, in other words. And it “matches the statutory speed limit.” Well so what if it matches?

If it were illegal to post higher than 30, that would be worth noting. Many engineers work under rules that say they can’t set limits below 25 or above 55. But the fact that the speed limit is 30 unless otherwise posted is irrelevant. The engineer’s job is to find what the speed limit should be, not what it would have been.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this. The evidence points one way but the conclusion of the report points the other based on some flimsy pretext.

All the facts said 40 but the lady paying the bills said 30. Money wins. If you need a consultant to break the rules, TEC has your back.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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2 Responses to “I can’t drive 30”

  1. James C. Walker says:

    As John knows, when he and other NMA members attended three sessions of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, we met many engineers who would tell us off the record things like:
    “I know what is right, but I have given up trying to overcome the political insistence to do the wrong things.”
    “If I went ahead and did the right things, I would lose my job.”

  2. John Carr says:

    A commenter off site complained that I didn’t discuss pedestrians and bicycles. The report noted there were no pedestrian or bicyclist crashes on Water Street. See page 22. So not much to discuss. The most common crash type was single vehicle in bad weather. One of 21 crashes over five years was determined to be “directly related to speed.” The report did note that some crashes could have been caused by the speed limit being too low.