By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist
“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious.”
— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Massachusetts has a problem with variable message signs. The problem is, the signs don’t go away during the 8750 hours per year they are not needed. They are a temptation to the kind of person who babbles inanities.
The most common messages are rhyming slogans warning us about this month’s ticket blitz being funded by our gas tax money. Sometimes the signs will attract our attention long enough to warn us about the dangers of not paying attention to the road.
Sometimes they’re just silly, like the message that warned me the road was wet during rain.
Sometimes they’re dangerous, like the message telling us to drive 40 mph during a slippery snowstorm when even Boston drivers had sense enough not to go over 30.
And sometimes they’re not only dangerous but also flat out lies, like the display on August 17, 2011.
“THINK ROAD SAFETY!” the sign commanded.
“OBEY SPEED LIMIT,” it added.
I saw this above Route 3 between Burlington and the New Hampshire line. I happened to know a bit about the speed limit there.
The speed limit on Route 3 is 55. The speed limit used to be 60. It was raised to 60 over 40 years ago when a study found 55 was too slow. There was never an engineering study supporting a reduction back to 55. It was reduced by executive order in 1973 to comply with the national speed limit. When the national speed limit was repealed in 1995 the highway commissioner ordered the low limit retained because he was afraid the state would be sued or otherwise embarrassed. So the speed limit is known to the transportation department not to be about safety.
It gets better. Route 3 was completely rebuilt a decade ago. The design speed for the project was 110 km/h (68 mph). The design speed is like a warranty: nothing in the road design requires a driver to go slower than 68 mph, not even on a wet road at night (the design conditions).
The average speed is not far from the design speed. The 85th percentile speed, which is supposed to be used for setting speed limits, is around 75 mph. A little over by my measurement, which found 1% compliance with the speed limit.
Eventually the absurdity of the 55 mph speed limit sunk in and in 2006 Mass Highway traffic engineers recommended a speed limit increase. State Police vetoed the change, preferring the 99% violation rate that let them write tickets at will. Police have no legal role in setting speed limits. Somebody in the Romney administration weighed the risk of losing ticket revenue against the risk of being blamed for accidents. Police won.
After engineers lost that fight people began to worry about the high accident rate on Route 3. The state hired a consultant to do a Road Safety Audit. The consultant’s report blamed the low speed limit, among other factors, for the high crash rate. The report explicitly recommended raising the speed limit.
Three years later, state officials have not followed the advice of their engineers, their consultant, or 100,000 drivers per day. State police are still out there running speed traps and helping keep the road as dangerous and profitable as they can.
So when the state sign says obey the speed limit for safety, that is not just a lie but a malicious lie. It is a statement made with knowledge that it is false and with reckless disregard for the consequences after being warned of those consequences.
I bet somebody got promoted for that one, or at least got a bonus for using the exclamation mark.