Making Excuses

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“49 reasons, all in a line, all of them good ones, all of them lies” — Stephen Stills

Is there a communications major in the house?

A major job of a government traffic engineer is justifying somebody else’s policy decision. The title could be Chief Public Relations Engineer for the Department of Public Works. Professional standards do not apply when wearing this hat. What’s important is the reasons sound plausible to the uninformed.

If your doctor said you were irritable because of a buildup of black bile and recommended a routine bloodletting to release the ill humors, you’d think he was a crank. Yet we put up with equal nonsense from public officials.

Welcome (stop) to (stop) Waltham, where (stop) all the roads are above average

I was reminded of this recently reading the city engineer’s report on all-way stop signs in Waltham, Massachusetts. For years politicians had been posting stop signs without first doing engineering studies. That is illegal in Massachusetts. NMA Activist Ken Michaud called the city on it. Officials asked traffic engineers whether the city could keep the signs.

If you’re at a traffic meeting try to gauge whether people are asking “can we?” or “should we?” If they are asking “can we?” the decision has already been made and they want a legal reason to justify it.

“Should we?” was easy. Most of the signs should be removed. The oldest all-way stops, posted at four busy intersections before the process became political, may be justified. The 14 posted since then are not.

The question was “can we?” That was clear too. The rules say no because the intersections are neither busy nor dangerous. Except…

The question was really “can we get away with it?” The city engineer asked MassDOT if he had to follow state rules despite the city’s desire to keep its stop signs. MassDOT said the state didn’t care as long as an engineer gave written approval. That turned the job from engineering to public relations.

Many standards allow for exceptions in special cases. Keep track of these and you’ll find that most every road gets an exception. When it comes to signs, all roads are more dangerous than average.

Out of 14 intersections where stop signs had been demanded by city politicians, 13 of them were found to be special cases that deserved all-way stop signs despite not meeting state standards, not having an accident problem, and not having heavy traffic.

93% is for amateurs

Calling 13 out of 14 intersections special is a bold move, but not the worst I’ve seen. The Oregon speed limit study is a contender for that title.

A 2003 law was supposed to raise Oregon Interstate speed limits to 70 mph. The governor and his people didn’t like this idea. The law avoided a veto because it didn’t actually raise speed limits to 70. It allowed 70 mph speed limits, conditional on an engineering study.

The engineering standard for setting speed limits is simple: except in unusual circumstances the speed limit should be near the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic. There are disagreements over whether to allow exceptions at all and whether to round up or down. These don’t change the essence of the 85th percentile rule.

Of course the answer to “should we” keep speed limits at 65 or lower was no. Oregon’s highways are not unusual. Existing limits were far too low. Speed limits around 75 were generally indicated. If the DOT had been doing engineering studies most speed limits would have been raised to 70, the maximum allowed by law. (Oregon law doesn’t allow a highway to have no speed limit.)

The people in charge didn’t want 70. They were asking “can we” keep speed limits low. I hope DOT engineers at least had the decency to feel embarrassed by their affirmative answer. Every bit of Interstate highway in the state was a special exception to the 85th percentile rule and needed a lower speed limit. To this day Oregon is the last Western state to cling to the old 55/65 mph speed limits.

We don’t care, we don’t have to

Around the same time Waltham was reviewing its old stop signs the town of Tisbury, Massachusetts was installing new signs. The new signs were posted for illegal reasons at intersections where standards were not met. A reporter called them on it.

Again, state officials gave assurances state standards would not be enforced. Again, town officials switched into public relations mode. An absolute prohibition became “just one small part” of a document. The town claimed compliance with “general guidelines” instead of specific rules. Murder is just one small part of the penal code, but I don’t think you can go around shooting people just because you felt you were following the general guidelines of the law. (Texas excepted.) (That’s a joke, please don’t shoot me, Texans.)

Malice or stupidity?

I often wonder, are these people incompetent or lying? Sometimes you know they are lying.

I have a letter from the Massachusetts Highway Department explaining that 55 mph and 65 mph highway speed limits are the result of a study of safety and travel time. After I got that letter I looked through state records. Obviously, no such study was done. Standards for speed limits don’t even consider travel time because speed limits do not affect travel speed. The truth is, the boss said no limits over 55 unless he personally approved a 65 mph speed limit. He would only approve 65 on Interstate-type highways with 70 mph design speed. But that policy is not┬álegal, and somebody has to make up lies to tell the public.

Years ago the Boston Globe wrote about a speed trap in Cambridge. A state engineer said a 20 mph reduction in speed limit was justified by pedestrian traffic. There was no pedestrian traffic. Sidewalks were behind concrete barriers. Nobody walked across the street because the median had fenced-off train tracks. Did the reporter notice that the reason didn’t make sense? Maybe, but who dares say the emperor has no clothes? The newspaper dutifully published the excuse and didn’t return to the topic.

Show me the study

Everybody has an opinion. Engineering is quantitative.

When an intersection only meets “general guidelines” for all-way stop signs it doesn’t need them. A real intersection study includes numbers. So many vehicles per hour, so many crashes per year.

Ask for the engineer’s report. Read it critically.

Don’t mistake numbers for facts. You may find explanations like “speed limit was reduced to 45 because of left exit,” “roads with on street parking subject to 35 mph maximum,” or “the speed limit is 30 because of pedestrian traffic.” These numbers are simply statements of department policy. Why 30 instead of 20 or 40? Why 45 instead of 55 or 65? Because somebody said so.

In cases like all-way stops, traffic signals, and speed limits the MUTCD sets quantitative standards, called “warrants.” These give an objective starting point for the decision to install traffic signs. So many vehicles, so many accidents, so many miles per hour.

If warrants are applicable and the report doesn’t discuss them, the signs are unjustified. I saw a speed limit study with “65 mph max applies” written where the engineer’s measurements would normally go. The boss said 65. The boss got 65.

If a report claims facts support the decision without stating those facts, be very suspicious. This Connecticut State Traffic Commission likes to do this. A report may say the 85th percentile speed supports the speed limit. So what is the 85th percentile speed? Were you too lazy to type a 2 digit number? No, the number didn’t support the speed limit so you left it out.

In an ideal world the report says warrants are satisfied and includes field observations to back up this claim. Now you’re debating an engineer acting in his professional capacity rather than the DPW’s PR guy. He might be right. If the issue goes to court he will be right.

More likely you will get an excuse for violating the rules or guidelines in the MUTCD. Look at it critically.

Does the DPW usually make the right call? Is this one road really different from the rest? Maybe the exception is justified.

Exceptions are supposed to be rare. Is every speed limit reduced below the 85th percentile speed? Is every nuisance stop sign request approved? If the exception has swallowed the rule, the emperor is naked.

This is Part 1 of a two part series. Look for Part 2 shortly.

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