The Politics of Speed Limits

Some special interests oppose raising interstate speed limits

With a high number of drivers exceeding the posted speed limits on Michigan interstates and rural highways, one has to wonder why anyone would oppose legalizing higher speeds. For insight, look no further than the five hours of testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on House Bills 4423 to 4427 given on Sept. 29, Oct. 6 and Oct. 13. The bills modify speed limits on roads to reflect what is known as the 85th percentile, or the speed not exceeded by 85 percent of drivers.

Those speaking out against the bills include members of the Michigan State Police, the auto insurance industry, the nonmotorized transportation lobby, the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan Department of Transportation. Each of these groups has a strong vested interest not to see speed limits increase. By listening to their comments, you can judge for yourself if safety is the number one reason on their minds.

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First, some background: Speed studies by the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Michigan State Police on sections of Interstates 94, 96, 69 and 75 show that speeds of 76 to 81 mph are the norm (the 85th percentile, as it is known in traffic engineering). On I-96 near Milford, for example, 85 percent of drivers exceed the speed limit. All of those drivers could potentially get a ticket, and many do. Police patrols can pull over virtually anyone at their own discretion.

When people drive faster, the conventional wisdom has been that the roads are less safe. Crash data, however, does not support this. According to the state police, though more cars are on the roads, total crashes fell in 2014 to 298,699 from 373,028 in 2004.

The Michigan State Police and Michigan Department of Transportation said they were taking a neutral stand on increasing limits, but their testimony suggests otherwise. For example, a researcher who said he was not speaking for MDOT but whose testimony was based on research MDOT paid for, told the panel we shouldn’t broadly raise limits. He testified that higher speeds would increase the severity of crashes, cause people to drive faster or jeopardize federal road funding, though his own research did not strongly support these conclusions. He suggested raising limits on certain candidate locations, considering things like favorable roadway geometry. Drivers assess roadway geometry all the time and slow down accordingly. Few would attempt hairpin curves at a 70 mph clip.

Likewise, representatives from the Michigan State Police testified that limits should not be increased, saying there is an epidemic of distracted driving. Examples included familiar horror stories such as “balancing a checkbook while steering” or “driving with knees while eating.” They didn’t say these things actually happened or led to crashes. MSP cited an increase in distracted driving tickets as evidence of less attentive driving, but that demonstrates nothing more than police writing more tickets for a particular offense. Ten years ago, MSP led the charge in getting speed limits to reflect actual driving behavior, so this about-face is a wonder.

Or is it? MSP would need fewer patrols to write speeding tickets, making arguments for higher budgets less convincing. There would be one less reason for patrols to pull cars over, which could result in fewer opportunities to seize property and cash through civil asset forfeiture.

MDOT testified that raising limits on roads would cost time and money. True, but what the agency is proposing — micromanaging speed limits with exhaustive studies — could be even more costly.

With fewer tickets, insurance companies would have less reason to levy surcharges for drivers with points on their licenses. It is almost impossible to calculate how many millions of dollars this costs Michigan drivers each year in addition to ticket fines. Premium-setting based on license points is a murky science to the outsider. Michigan drivers can’t even see how many points they have on their license — one of the criteria for setting premiums — without paying the Secretary of State $10.

Municipalities would have less money for themselves and their courts with higher limits. Most speed ticket revenue goes to the state library fund, but some cities and townships get around this safeguard by pleading speeding tickets down to zero-point local ordinance violations that can sometimes cost double the price of a speed ticket. Municipalities can then keep the entire fine amount for themselves. HB 4426 essentially eliminates points on tickets for going 5 mph or less over the limit, making it harder for local prosecutors to deal points.

But opposition to the bills was not universal.

“These bills will virtually eliminate artificially low speed limits on main roads which facilitate speed traps for revenue,” testified Jim Walker of the National Motorists Association.

He said higher limits would allow police patrols to focus on the truly egregious speeders and help restore respect for traffic laws.

“Most rational people know that artificially low limits which arbitrarily define 50 to 70 or 90 percent of the safe drivers as violators are not about safety,” said Walker.

“Enforcement for profits is always wrong.”


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