Overruling the Rules

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Ultra vires — an act under color of authority but beyond the legal authority granted to a person or administrative agency

Having an interest in traffic laws and signs, I am in the minority that reads road signs. I see “TRUCKS USE LEFT LANE.” “END LEFT LANE PROHIBITION.” “BICYCLES MAY USE FULL LANE.” Having an interest in traffic laws and signs, I think “that’s illegal.”

I don’t think “that’s wrong.” I think “that’s illegal.”

Signs direct trucks to the left lane where state law says slower traffic must keep right. Usually pavement in the right lane is failing or too thin to support trucks. State law makes no exception for situations where trucks will destroy pavement. The slow truck driver has a statutory obligation to use the right lane.

Some DOTs post signs a mile before left exits where trucks would otherwise be banned from the left lane. State law does not say “except within a mile of a left exit.” It may omit the exception, or say as long as necessary. Somebody in the DOT picked a specific distance, without statutory authority.

I see the bicycle sign on roads which aren’t especially narrow, and in states without the “substandard width lane” exception in bicycle law. Bicycles, being slow traffic, must keep right and yield to overtaking cars. They may not take the lane because a sign tells them to. When they may take the lane, the sign is still irrelevant because any right to do so derives from statute, not administrative action.

Somebody decided “the law as written is stupid, let’s do what works.” They may be right or wrong. In any case, the precedent is set.

Why don’t state DOTs overrule stupid state speed limit laws? They used to.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened, the state had a 50 mph speed limit. The limit worked for Model Ts on narrow country roads. It made no exception for newer cars on four lane superhighways.

State officials realized the law was stupid and did not enforce it. Only after fixing the law did they post a real speed limit, 70 mph. The speed limit was not unreasonable at the time. The tire ad saying “you have to slow down to 90 for the curves” was marketing hyperbole. Most drivers kept under 60. Many prewar cars couldn’t even reach the speed limit.

The original 70 mph limit would be like posting 85 or 90 today. The average driver would never need to look at the speedometer. The fastest 1% of drivers could get speeding tickets.

In the 1940s state authorities said, 50 is ridiculous and we refuse to cooperate.

Today state authorities say, 70 is ridiculous and we refuse to cooperate.

The Pennsylvania legislature has authorized a return to 70 mph, but state officials don’t like the law. They have spent their entire careers in an era where speed limits are set to maximize violations. They announced 70 would be a special exception reserved for only a few highways, instead of the vast majority that ought to have that limit.

In other words, Pennsylvania freeway speed limits will continue to be as serious as 50 mph on the Turnpike.

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