Blasting the Myths, and Making the Case for Reasonable Speed Limits

This Op-Ed is posted to MoreMonmouthMusings.net

The editorial board recently took a position AGAINST setting speed limits based on engineering criteria and FOR setting limits based on the hunches of unqualified elected officials and bureaucrats.  The position is so fundamentally flawed, so based on decades-old defunct myths, so devoid of any basis in actual fact, that it's hard to decide where to begin.

My speed limit initiative is a simple one - set speed limits based on sound engineering criteria.  I would remove uninformed or profit-motivated elected officials and bureaucrats from the process. Traffic laws shouldn't be based on the random hunches of any of us. Setting any law by hunch only diminishes the public's confidence in ALL laws. That's not a way to enhance safety anywhere. Why should the public take a 25 mph school speed limit seriously when we randomly post such speed limits all over - including stretches of roadway that should be posted at 40?  Don't even get me started on the damage random limits have on the image of our police - who become the face of these arbitrary laws.

I need to make clear - raising or lowering speed limits doesn't appreciably alter travel speeds.  Study after study shows that you don't dictate actual travel speeds with randomly posted limit signs.  On the contrary - any competent traffic engineer will tell you, you set speed limits according to the speeds reasonable people would naturally drive.  If you do this you will get the greatest amount of compliance, smoothest traffic flow, lowest rate of passing and HIGHEST LEVELS OF SAFETY.  

The Press's contention that increasing a limit by 5 or 10 mph would result in a like increase in speeds is a totally debunked myth.  In fact we heard this argument when we increased the speed limit on NJ highways back in 1997.  In fact we heard virtually all of the Press's lame arguments back then - we'd have "a 10 mph increase in speeds and carnage on our highways and NJ is too congested for any change!"

All of these arguments proved totally false. After the increase - as has been seen in other states - we had our safest years ever.

The first myth, and the one upon which the Press builds the rest of its case, is that speed limits increase speeds by the amount of the limit increase.  Yet, had they bothered to ask or do even the slightest bit of research (quoting the profit-motivated Insurance Institute for Highway Safety doesn't count!), they would have found that actual travel speeds only increased 1 mile per hour on average when we went from 55 to 65.  Speeds on the Parkway and Turnpike went up by 4 mph.  But fatal accidents and fatalities went down. Surprise! People obey reasonable limits and you get better, safer traffic flow.  

Since speeds don't appreciably increase with changes in speed limits, virtually all of the Press's other arguments fall like dominoes.  Lower speed limits don't result in lower speeds - so therefore aren't safer.  With the effect they have on traffic flow, speed differentials, passing and resource application, artificially low limits make roadways LESS safe.

Another debunked contention of the Press is one that should offend us all - that we're homicidal scofflaws.  The suggestion is that New Jersey is a death pit compared to other states. Sorry to disappoint the editors, but New Jersey's roads are consistently some of the safest in the nation.  This despite our density.  That destroys the last of the Press arguments.

So why should we strive for proper limits?  First, they're safer. When you set speed limits to engineering standards you get the greatest compliance rates, smoothest traffic flow, lowest passing rates and proper allocation of limited police resources and focus. Forcing police to be the face of laws that the public knows are bogus, has been a huge contributor to the serious deterioration of the image of police across the country.  

Artificially low limits - which virtually no one obeys - mean that virtually anyone can be pulled over at any time.  Those, particularly the poor, who receive tickets - that wouldn't be issued at all, or would be for a much lower level of infraction - struggle to pay the resultant fines and insurance surcharges. Many end up in the system - unable to ever hope to dig out.  Throw in the fact that the poor and minorities seem to consistently be receiving more than their share of tickets and you have all the more reason to ensure that our laws are fair to begin with. 

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PAID FOR BY Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon

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