End of the Road for Speed Traps?

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Politicians, driver advocacy groups and even the police are trying to outlaw speed traps, not only because they’re annoying, but because when speed limits are too low, roads become more — not less — dangerous.

Most drivers understand the need for speed limits. And yet they loathe speed traps — the road sections where speed limits suddenly decrease, and where the chances of unknowingly exceeding the speed limit therefore increase. There are generally solid reasons why the speed limits dip so precipitously; often, it’s because the road cuts through a town where there’s likely to be pedestrian traffic or kids on bikes. But sometimes, drivers are mystified by why a road’s speed limit drops, leading many to believe the purpose is mainly to make it easier for police officers to hand out speeding tickets, which generate revenue for the state or municipality.

Columnists and bloggers have been sharing lists warning about the worst speed traps in cities like Denver and Salt Lake City, and years ago the National Motorists Association (NMA) launched speedtrap.org, a speed-trap-information-exchange site that was just upgraded to make it easier for drivers to find out about hot spots for police handing out speeding tickets.

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In several states, there’s now a push to help motorists avoid getting busted in speed traps that goes beyond mere warnings. The goal is to change the law and get rid of speed traps. In Michigan, state senator Rick Jones, a Republican from Grand Ledge and a 30-year law-enforcement veteran, has proposed that state speed limits be raised to as high as 80 m.p.h. (up from the current 70 m.p.h.) and that limits should be set not by the whims of local politicians but with the assistance of road experts and traffic studies. Specifically, Jones thinks speed limits should be set according to the “85th-percentile rule,” which stipulates that the limit be established as the speed that 85% of drivers travel.

“Politicians should never set speed limits,” said Jones. “That’s how you get speed traps. It should be done scientifically by the Michigan state police or the police in areas where a study is done.”

A Detroit News editorial endorsed Jones’ plan to kill “revenue-raising speed traps that unfairly target drivers,” noting that similar proposals (and higher speed limits) in states like Texas and Wyoming have not resulted in higher accident rates, nor in substantially higher average car speeds. The endorsement also quoted the leader of the National Motorists Association, which has long argued that in fact higher, more reasonable speed limits actually make roads safer:

‘Establishing posted speed limits in accordance with the 85th-percentile speed is one of the most important traffic-safety tenets,’ says Gary Biller, president of the NMA. ‘By doing so, the differential speed among vehicles on the road is minimized, and it is differential speed that can be a major factor in causing accidents.’

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Perhaps surprisingly, the police have also come out in favor of higher speed limits in Michigan, basically agreeing with the NMA’s take that it’s safest when cars are driving at roughly the same speeds. “With artificially low speed limits we put police in a position of actually ticketing safe drivers,” said Lieutenant Gary Megge of the Michigan State Police Traffic Services. He’s pushing for Jones’ 85th-percentile rule because “I want to see drivers traveling within a 10-m.p.h. band of one another,” and said if police aren’t spending their time handing out unnecessary speeding tickets, they could focus on more important issues, like watching out for drunk drivers.

Less surprisingly, a CBS station in Detroit hosted an Internet poll asking if drivers support or oppose an 80 m.p.h. statewide speed limit, and thus far about two-thirds of voters are in favor.

In Illinois, drivers are welcoming a recently enacted law allowing speed limits up to 70 m.p.h. (up from the current 65 m.p.h.) on highways in rural areas. “It’s a no-brainer,” one driver told the Chicago Tribune. “Increase the speed limit. Everyone already drives about 80 m.p.h. on the highway. A lot of other states already have higher speed limits, and it seems to work for them.”

An initiative to up the speed limit in Wisconsin is also getting ample local support. “State residents like to think of Wisconsin as progressive,” an editorial in Wisconsin’s Janesville Gazette reads. “We remain in the slow lane and even backward, however, on interstate speeds.” The piece argues that the current 65-m.p.h. limit is “an archaic roadblock for motorists,” and that bumping it up to 70 m.p.h. would be a step in the right direction, without putting more people in jeopardy. “Vehicles keep getting safer, more people are wisely buckling up, and traffic deaths per mile driven have been falling,” the article states.

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Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however. Some maintain that it’s dead wrong and downright dangerous to raise speed limits and encourage drivers to step on the gas. “Raising speed limits is politically popular, and higher speed limits get people to their destinations faster,” Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said to the Chicago Tribune concerning the changes to speed limits in Illinois. “But we have to recognize there’s always a safety trade-off. There’s no free lunch. And more people will die on the roads as a result.”