Speed Trap Empire Strikes Back at Reform Effort

Bills place safety ahead of government and insurance company revenue in setting limits

A package of bills designed in part to eliminate speed traps was reported out of the House Transportation Committee lacking a provision that would have restricted local governments from imposing unreasonably low speed limits.

One of the bills would have required limits to be set no lower than the speed at which 75 percent of drivers proceed in free-flowing traffic under normal conditions. The deletion of that requirement will let municipalities like Grand Rapids continue to enforce limits that studies show are exceeded by 97 percent of drivers.

Speeding tickets are a multimillion-dollar revenue stream for governments and a windfall for auto insurers, which charge higher premiums for license points. Drivers who get more than 6 points on a license within three years – equal to three speeding tickets — can find themselves in a more expensive insurance risk pool.

The accepted traffic-engineering standard for speed limits is the 85th percentile, the speed not exceeded by 85 percent of the drivers. The original bill, HB 4425, mandated that all speed limits be set at that level, but no lower than the 75th percentile. Studies have shown that when limits are set to reflect actual driving speeds, they can make the road safer by eliminating “speed variation,” which can lead to traffic conflicts and more crashes.

James Walker of the National Motorists Association says the original bill had it right. He told a House committee, "I believe that unrealistically low limits like those which define the overwhelming majority of safe drivers as violators bear no relationship whatsoever to responsible traffic safety engineering." He continued, "I believe these, irresponsible practices will continue until the Legislature requires realistic posted speed limits by law."

Walker, who has been studying speed limits for over 50 years, pointed to Grand Rapids, where he conducted seven studies of 1,193 vehicles. Only 38 of the drivers of those vehicles, or 3 percent, were driving the posted limit.

A spokesman for the city said that raising speed limits can create problems. “Higher speeds do exponentially increase force in vehicle crashes," said Steve Guitar, communications director for the city of Grand Rapids. "They can also negatively impact the quality of life in neighborhoods causing safety risks to children and families living in school zones, near parks, in business districts and throughout the city’s urban neighborhoods. Grand Rapids has dense housing structured among narrow tree-lined streets. Raising speeds in those areas, in our and our residents’ opinion, does impact the quality of life (sound, bicycle and pedestrian safety) of a neighborhood."

Asked if the city considered all drivers who exceed the city’s posted limits to be unsafe drivers, Guitar said, “As stated in our release, we set limits based on Michigan Vehicle Code, MCL 257.627." He continued, "Our speeds are determined following that text so that 'a person operating a vehicle on a highway shall operate that vehicle at a careful and prudent speed not greater than nor less than is reasonable and proper, having due regard to the traffic, surface, and width of the highway and of any other condition then existing.'"

The sponsor of two of the five reform bills, Rep. Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford), said lawmakers eliminated the 75th-percentile minimum because the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Michigan State Police wanted more flexibility in setting limits.

“We get criticism for some of the things we do at the schools because we’re not school experts, telling teachers what to do; same thing here,” said Jacobsen.

Jacobsen said he is aware of speed enforcement practices like those in Grand Rapids but doesn't think they are problems on the east side of the state. He also said it was important to recognize local authority.

“We, in the Legislature, try to listen and cooperate with our township associations and the Michigan Municipal League as much as possible, and many of us have local government background and experience,” said Jacobsen.

There were other changes in the bills. An earlier version said that the normal speed limit could not be reduced by more than 10 mph in a construction zone. The substitute bill allows for 45 mph limits where workers are present.

Lawmakers did retain other provisions, however. The most significant change would be to allow higher speed limits. They could go to 80 mph on rural limited access freeways, 70 mph in urban areas and 65 mph on trunk line highways.

The bills also retain a provision clarifying limits on a 25 mph speed limit allowed for residential subdivisions. This may eliminate the practice by some municipalities to designate any street as being in that category. The bills also allow Oakland and Macomb counties to set lower limits on gravel roads, a source of controversy there since a 2006 law established a uniformly higher statewide limit.

The insurance companies were able to get some leverage on HB 4427, which clarifies insurance eligibility points, which can lead to higher insurance bills for drivers. The original bill called for zero points for exceeding the speed limit by less than 6 miles per hour. The substitute bill allows auto insurers to add one point.

Jacobsen hopes the package of bills to go to the full House within the next three weeks. He said there has been fear-mongering on social media against raising speed limits.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.