Two Michigan lawmakers with backgrounds in law enforcement want to change the process for setting speed limits on city streets to ensure postings are scientific and safe. They hope to put an end to what they believe are unfair speed traps in Michigan, where speed limits are set far below the speed most motorists drive and police linger to write up tickets. The proposed changes reportedly would make roadways safer and minimize the abuse that the bill’s sponsors say is inflicted upon motorists who receive speeding tickets along stretches of road with unnecessarily low speed limits. Those two purported outcomes of the bill are worthy motivations. We know the legislation’s sponsors have the best of intentions; yet, we’re not convinced the proposal would make a rapid, significant impact.
Senate Bill (SB) 795, introduced on Nov. 3, is co-sponsored by state Sens. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) and Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek). Jones has 31 years of experience as a police officer; Nofs is a former Michigan State Police (MSP) commander.
Under the bill, prima facie speed limits can be changed by local officials if an engineering study is conducted by either a private company or the MSP. A prima facie speed limit is a default speed limit that applies when no other specific speed limit is posted.
The proposal states that an established speed limit on state highways shall be posted within 5 mph of how fast the 85th percentile of motorists are traveling in free-flowing traffic. Speeds must not go below the 75th percentile once scientific standards determine the average speed of traffic.
To find the 85th percentile speed, one must conduct a study of free-flowing traffic and calculate the average recorded speed. Eighty-five percent of the average speed would be the 85th percentile speed.
Should a highway segment be determined through study to have a design speed lower than the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic (a safe speed based on the road’s design), the road authority in the jurisdiction may post appropriate advisory speed signs.
Any new speed limits established under the bill’s provisions must be accepted by the MSP and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).
The maximum speed limit on all freeways would still be 70 mph unless an engineering and traffic investigation determines otherwise, but can not be less than 55 mph.
In addition, the bill calls for the elimination of school speed zones around public and private high schools. However, an engineering study could be conducted to determine the need for an established school zone, and the prima facie speed limit shall be in force no more than 30 minutes before school starts and no more than 30 minutes after it’s dismissed.
SB 795 has been assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee for consideration.
According to Jones and Nofs, too many jurisdictions have posted speed limits that are too low, sometimes as a means to set up police speed traps in order to generate more ticket fine revenue. They say that using a scientific approach (determining the 85th percentile speed) to establish speed limits is not only the fair thing to do, but also the safer approach. Stretches of roadway where the speed limited is posted at the 85th percentile speed typically have fewer accidents, while there tends to be more accidents along roadways where the speed limit is under-posted, according to Jones and Nofs.
Jones said if jurisdictions under-post speed limits and issue tickets to motorists traveling the speed they actually should be allowed to drive, the motorist receives a sizable fine and three years of higher auto insurance premiums, two things that he characterized as abuse.
We trust Jones and Nofs when they say their experience and national research indicate safer conditions when speed limits are set at the 85th percentile speed. We’re no fans of speed traps, and certainly are proponents of safety, which makes SB 795 sound like legislation that merits expedited approval; however, we question the actual effect the proposed changes would have in the field.
Our concern is that most of the changes proposed under SB 795 would require studies by either a private firm or the MSP. We’ve all heard over and over again that the State Police are already overwhelmed and hampered by budget cuts, making that agency an unlikely provider of road studies. That would leave many of requisite studies up to private firms, which aren’t going to conduct these studies for free. We wonder how many of these studies jurisdictions can really afford at one time.
We also recall the hubbub created a few years ago when a change in state law ramped up speed limits on many gravel roadways in the state. The outcry from municipal officials and residents was great.
The Legislature and public must keep in mind the MSP and local jurisdictions’ limited resources when considering SB 795. Enacting the bill may well draw cheers from motorists, but real change on the street isn’t likely to take place quickly.