NMA E-Newsletter #224: Justified—or Not

Public officials often use traffic engineering reports to justify policies motivated more by political expediency than by concern for public safety. In a recent three-part series for the NMA Blog (linked below), NMA Massachusetts Activist John Carr analyzes how misguided priorities result in deficient, misleading and inaccurate reports—reports that lead to poor traffic engineering and bad public policy.

Carr dissects many examples of faulty reporting from his own experiences driving through the Northeast. In Bridgewater, Connecticut, engineers ignored the facts from their own traffic study that clearly indicated the speed along a stretch of Route 133 should have been posted at 45-50 mph. Instead, they concluded the following:

‘The study has not indicated any significant changes since the previous study or revealed any pertinent information that could have an effect on the existing speed limit. Therefore, based on roadway geometrics, road side development, vehicle operating speeds and trial runs, it is recommended that the existing 40 mph speed limit remain the same.’

In Worcester, Massachusetts, officials used a faulty engineering report to justify the placement of four-way stop signs at an intersection with no accident problem and very low traffic volume. As Carr explains it:

There was a political demand for stop signs to slow traffic. Stop signs aren’t supposed to be posted at low volume intersections or for speed control. The DPW came back with a report explaining why stop sign standards could be ignored… The city solicitor advised the city clerk not to sign the ordinance. The signs were posted anyway. They aren’t legal, but they are posted and that’s what the city cares about.

Throughout the series, Carr provides tips on how to spot a compromised report:

If you are reviewing a document that purports to be an engineering study to set a speed limit, start with a checklist:

  • Does the study include data, or merely assert that data has been considered?
  • Does the study give you enough information to suggest an approximate speed limit (within 5 mph)?
  • Does the study admit to political influence?

And this only scratches the surface. Public officials at all levels need to follow the rules and be held accountable when they don’t. Unfortunately, they’re often enabled by those who should, and do, know better.

Here’s another example of someone who should know better: In testimony before an Illinois Senate committee on a measure to increase interstate speed limits, Illinois DOT representative John Webber told lawmakers higher speeds cause more accidents. He also stated that higher speed limits encourage drivers to just drive that much faster.

If Webber doesn’t know that both of these assertions are false, he should. His statements demonstrate either a fundamental misunderstanding of speed zoning or a willful misstatement of the facts. Either way, he’s not acting in the public interest. (Learn more about proper speed zoning.)

We thank John Carr for providing readers with a provocative series of articles. We encourage you to read them all here:

Making Excuses
Taking a Closer Look -Part 1
Taking a Closer Look – Part 2

We would also like to hear from you. Do you know of any examples in which the justification for a traffic-related proposal was clearly motivated by something other than the public good? Drop us a note and tell us about it.

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