This week’s ignorance of the law award goes to the Massachusetts State Police, who said “Open roads are not a license to speed.” In fact open roads are a license to speed. Massachusetts has what is known as a prima facie speed law. Exceeding the speed limit is not against the law. Under ordinary conditions exceeding the speed limit is evidence that you were driving too fast. But traffic and road conditions always matter. And traffic conditions are much better than normal.
Once upon a time speed limits were meant to assist in catching dangerous drivers. Now they’re a hypocritical game. “I drive 70 but you’ll get a ticket if you do.” Police are quite open about this, as a trip through the Boston Globe’s archives will tell you. Or take a trip along the Turnpike and watch the dark blue cars fly past.
A few weeks ago the governor told State Police to go forth and write speeding tickets. Using the government’s own data, we can ask “how big is the problem they are trying to solve?” I went to MassDOT’s crash visualization tool, actually outsourced to Esri. From March 19 to May 9 of this year there were 43 reported fatal accidents compared to 46 last year. Police coded seven of those as related to a driver exceeding the speed limit. Of those seven, three were on roads where State Police handle law enforcement. Two of those were single vehicles that went out of control driving down the highway. In one case the driver went onto the shoulder, overcorrected, flipped her SUV, and was hit by two other cars. That was coded as speed-related but it’s the classic crash of an SUV built before electronic stability control was required. In the third accident one car hit another from behind causing loss of control. Maybe it was speed related. I’d ask State Police for the accident investigation, but they don’t give those out without a lawsuit or a credible threat of one.
So this mobilization is due to a rear-ender on I-95 on April 7 that might have been caused by somebody driving too fast. Anything else is not speed-related or not under State Police jurisdiction.
Governor Baker’s emergency powers allow him to create new crimes with the stroke of a pen. He should say possession of a laser gun with intent to use is a misdemeanor. Police on a power trip risk infecting the public and causing accidents as people slam on the brakes.
He won’t criminalize speed traps, of course. State Police have too much power and they would rather kill you than give up the right to raise revenue. That’s not hyperbole. I’ve written about their attitude before. After Route 3 north of Burlington was rebuilt to modern standards the State Police vetoed a speed limit increase. A road safety audit said the low speed limit was likely killing people. Still, they stuck to their position. Better a dozen people die than one pretext stop be lost.
When I look at non-fatal accidents Massachusetts’ story is the same as California’s: injuries are way down, proportional to traffic volume. It’s likely that statistic tells the true story about traffic safety. But I can’t prove there isn’t a processing backlog for lower severity incidents. And by the time we know for sure, the state will be in such a deep revenue hole that police are going to see their quotas raised no matter what safety says.