Which Speed Limit Do You Prefer?

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Now the first of December was covered in snow, and slow was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston — not James Taylor

Those aren’t quite the lyrics to “Sweet Baby James,” but they should be. A ritual of winter in Massachusetts is the radio announcement “State police have reduced the speed limit on the Turnpike to 40 miles per hour.”

What has happened is a police spokesman has stated the limit is 40 and a few Turnpike employees placed “SPEED LIMIT 40” signs in front of toll booths. On the highway you see “SPEED LIMIT 65” as usual, repeated from Stockbridge to Natick. Law, regulation, and signs say 65. The speed limit is 65. That’s why we have signs. If the sign says 65 the state isn’t supposed to say “gotcha! we really meant 40.”

This policy is as old as the Turnpike. In the 1960s the speed limit was 60 reduced to 30 during storms.

The proclamation provides an excuse for police to pull over or ticket people they think deserve a pulling over or ticketing. Last winter the Governor came up with a way to let them pull over all drivers instead of most drivers; more on that another time.

In Maine they reduce the speed limit to 45 in bad weather. In 2004 a car crashed going 71 miles per hour during a snow storm. Police did not ticket the driver. A spokesman explained that nobody deserved a ticket under those circumstances: the 45 mph speed limit was merely a suggestion, “he was going too fast for the existing conditions, not speeding,” driving 6 over the limit wasn’t a big deal, being in an accident was punishment enough, and the car’s “black box” can’t be trusted.

In case you haven’t guessed, he was lying to protect a fellow police officer. The governor’s official driver damaged another car and slightly injured the governor. According to that lying black box the governor wasn’t wearing his seat belt. The governor’s official statement was “In hindsight, everybody would agree a slower speed would be safer.” Try that next time you’re in court. “Your honor, in hindsight I should have stopped after the fifth beer.”

Pennsylvania also proclaims a 45 mph speed limit, contrary to fixed signs. In California you are supposed to disregard speed limit signs and slow to 30 when chain controls are in effect, even if your car doesn’t need chains.

On a few bridges and highways all speed limit signs are electronic. The New Jersey Turnpike has consistent 35 or 45 mph speed limits during rain or snow. Arbitrary, but consistent.

Does anybody care when one made-up number is replaced by another? When one made-up number contradicts another? Should anybody care?

I see a confluence of two American obsessions: rules and numbers. Government attracts people who like to micromanage others’ lives. We like to think we can measure everything, hence the obsession with school test scores instead of teaching students to think.

In good weather we know how the numbers work. Safety research and policy considerations give the same answer. If there are speed limits on rural highways, posting around 80-85 mph is mostly harmless.

In bad weather we don’t know how the numbers should work. Conditions are too variable and we haven’t done the research. DOTs have demonstrated an inability to make up useful numbers. Four inches of snow on the road and traffic crawling at 20, sign says 40. Rain on a warm day that happens to be before the vernal equinox, sign says 40.

Messages on electronic signs are often worse than useless because they distract people from driving during dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, DOT officials don’t think about the consequences of their actions. Nobody ever got fired for saying “I know I could kill somebody, but I have to get this flashing message out warning drivers that it’s raining.”

So take away their toys. When snow falls, lock up the radar guns and turn off the signs. Winter driving is tough enough without the government trying to help.

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