Speed Limit 50 Except When We Don’t Like It

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Vermont speed law is simpler than most. The speed limit is 50 except as posted following an engineering and traffic investigation. (23 VSA 1007, 1081)

City officials in Burlington decided the law does not align with their wishes. They decreed the speed limit in town is 25 mph except as posted.

This is the end result of several years agitation by the usual anti-motorist groups citing the usual cherry-picked data I wrote about recently. It is not, however, legal. State law does not allow city-wide speed limits. The speed limit is 50 except as posted. Speed limits other than 50 mph may be set on on a single street, or part of a street, based on an engineering study.

The city traffic engineers obviously did not study every street. They went out of their way to reject per-street studies because some of them had already found that 25 mph was too slow. The excuse was that different streets should not have different speed limits, so the 30 mph limits had to go.

As usual, the policy about not having different speed limits in different places is selectively enforced. Some streets are posted below 25 mph. Normally that is not allowed in Vermont but so-called “downtown development districts” can have lower speed limits. These districts are also exempt from compliance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which requires speed limit changes to be based on engineering studies. (See 23 VSA 1007(g).)

Vermont officials may be committing fraud thanks to that exemption. Federal highway aid is only available to states that follow the MUTCD and have a highway safety agency with authority to ensure state compliance. An application for federal aid is considered an “implied certification” that all legal prerequisites are met. In practice, the Federal Highway Administration is not going to suddenly start calling for speed limits based on highway safety.

So some city may be posting an illegal speed limit. You can’t just ignore it because you don’t care now. Under state law an illegal speed zone that has been around for five years has seniority and is retroactively valid. 23 VSA 1007(e). This law was passed after a driver successfully challenged a speed limit that had been posted without an engineering study.

If Vermont were setting speed limits based on safety there wouldn’t be a five year time limit on challenges. There would be a mandatory review of speed limits every five years which would ensure a fresh speed study

The state traffic committee will decide in its next meeting whether to approve or disapprove Burlington’s new speed limit. If you live or drive in Vermont your best bet is to convince the state to reject the limit. The state traffic committee is made of the Secretary of Transportation, DMV commissioner, and Public Safety commissioner.

Don’t drive in Vermont? Your local speed limits were probably set just as arbitrarily. Certainly I’ve never lived anywhere that they were not. The only thing unusual here is the press coverage.

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