The Push to Curtail Driving

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is the government’s massive document that controls the application of regulatory devices like stop signs, crosswalk markings, and traffic lights. The MUTCD, last updated in 2009, is the current subject of a proposed federal rule by the FHWA. The sweeping revisions suggested by the federal agency create some very real concerns among drivers, particularly related to speed limit determination and stop sign placements. These alerts from the NMA — Anti-Driving Regulations Will Become Law Unless You Act Now, Parts 1 (Speed Limits) and 2 (Stop Signs) — provide more detail about what is at stake.

The public has until May 14th to tell the FHWA what it thinks about the proposed amendments to the MUTCD. There are many excellent comments made to the public record, and we thought we would share some with you. If you haven’t posted to the record yet, consider doing so by the deadline at this link.


I am a salesman and drive for a living. I believe traffic studies are necessary for safe traffic flow in big cities as well as small towns. Leaving the requirement for traffic studies out of the manual is a mistake. It opens the door for politicians or worse, a bureaucrat to set speed limits at a whim and make driving a living hell for professional drivers. There are other factors to consider in your proposal. Eliminating sound engineering principals will raise the cost of goods exponentially. Every artificially reduced speed limit will affect the delivery of a good or service to every citizen, including yourselves, raising delivery and service times. Businesses will have to raise prices to compensate for making less stops per day, and there may even be shortages of perishables due to fewer deliveries.

You need to understand this is more than just an engineering manual—this is going to affect people’s lives every day, for a long time. There are many more ramifications I could go into, just think long and hard before you abandon a principal that has stood and benefited so many for so long.

W.B., Pennsylvania


I am writing to oppose the changes to how speed limits are set and determined. I long know through working with local councils in the western suburbs of Cleveland that the desire to fiddle and manipulate traffic laws for profoundly unscientific reasons is bad for everyone: It slows traffic, worsens pollution, reduces regional productivity and gives perverse incentives to small jurisdictions to change speed limits and enforce local ordinances that improve no one’s safety and erodes confidence in law and law enforcement in general. It just encourages greedy government at the expense of citizens doing nothing particularly wrong. These are all the elements of bad regulation and degrading law. Keep it mandatory for traffic speed distribution data to be factored into the posted-speed analysis. Pointlessly making this a local option is a move in the wrong direction.

G.B., Ohio


I’m reading the proposed amendment revision to the MUTCD, and have the following comments.

In the newly renamed section 2B.21 on speed limit signs, I see the sentence “The engineering study shall include an analysis of the current speed distribution of flowing vehicles” has been redlined out. The redlining needs to be removed and the sentence reinstated.

If no engineering study is performed, on what basis would the posted speed limit (PSL) be set? A guess? Wishful thinking? Roll of the dice? The entire point of the MUTCD: set standardized, uniform policy for all locations. Use the MUTCD method to set the PSL, via the gold standard for decades, the 85th percentile.

Without an engineering study, there would be no basis in reality for setting a number. Moreover, with some municipalities, too many of them, sadly, it will lead to arbitrarily set PSL numbers designed to maximize their revenue, not for safety nor traffic flow reasons, as well as lacking uniformity. The MUTCD should not be a means to incentivize profiteering revenue. The 85th percentile number has long been a cornerstone of setting limits, and there’s no valid reason to eliminate it.

It’s almost funny, but even the commenter’s checklist says “Base your justification on sound reasoning, scientific evidence.” Without an engineering study, the proposed MTUCD revision in 2B.21 completely CONTRADICTS the very instructions given to commenters.

J.M., Iowa


I have been a medical examiner (forensic pathologist) for a quarter century. I perform autopsies on all traffic fatalities in my jurisdiction, and a slice of them in a neighboring urban jurisdiction where I also work part time. I can confidently state that speed is almost never the sole cause, and seldom the major cause of a fatal crash. When speed is a cause, it is never a driver going at or below the presently-set speed limits. Long after the newspaper or news channel has broadcast a sensational report and lost interest in the case, I see the toxicology report, sometimes 6 to 8 weeks later. I see the entire police report and the accident reconstruction engineering study, so I know the facts that didn’t make it into the news coverage because of a reporter’s deadline or because law enforcement did not release all the facts (e.g., in the case of a minor or because of an ongoing investigation.)

Clamping down on speed limits as a feel-good measure, or artificially restricting traffic flow in the interest of a hidden agenda, will not reduce fatalities or injuries. Sound traffic engineering principles embrace speed limits set at the 85th percentile. I encourage you to keep intact the opening paragraph in Section 2B21 (formerly 2B.13), Speed Limit Signs and Plaques:

“Speed zones (other than statutory speed limits e.g., established by Federal or state law) shall only be established on the basis of an engineering study that has been performed in accordance with traffic engineering practices. The engineering study shall include an analysis of the current speed distribution of free-flowing vehicles.”

E.B., Tennessee


I have no academic qualifications in the field of driving safety; however, I have driven many miles over 55 years on roads that are properly designed and posted and on many that are not. Improper speed limit posting, for example, creates of necessity two categories of driver; those that will comply with the posted limit whatever it may be and those that use common sense, driving experience and current road conditions to drive at a safe, generally higher speed. Unavoidable clashes and crashed occur when the two types of drivers interact.

One example is the frequent occurrence on multilane highways when a slower driver hogs the left lane because s(he) is doing the under-posted speed limit. Other examples are crashes that occur as a result of sudden change in posted speed limit not based on road conditions, or sudden recognition of an enforcement officer on an underposted road leading to what amounts to an emergency braking situation that jeopardizes following vehicles.

Many other instances occur. The closer speed limits are set to actual driving practices, the less likely such unfortunate instances will occur. Thus the 85% rule that has been the foundation of speed limit setting must remain so. Codification of road posting must be for the purpose of optimization between safe driving and efficient transporation and nothing else.

As a physician I have witnessed first hand the disastrous societal results when belief-based action dictates public policy in situations where scientific foundation both exists and is highly relevant. Do not repeat that mistake yet again.

H.S., Pennsylvania


I served as a District Court Judge in the state of Kentucky from 1986 to 2014; traffic cases comprised a large percentage of my trial dockets. Over several decades I observed first-hand how traffic laws and regulations were respected or disrespected by the driving public. I fear that allowing stop signs to be posted without a quantitative safety analysis and justification by the engineer will result in a significant increase of posted stop signs in areas where a stop sign is not actually needed. I further believe could easily lead to increased disregard of traffic laws if the driving public cannot see a reasonable justification for the signage.

As a full-time prosecutor I do not want to see our police agencies be forced to divert critical resources to enforcing vehicular traffic at stop signs that are at best unneeded- and at worse, actually dangerous.

B.T., Kentucky


Regarding stop sign guidance under Section 2B of the proposed MUTCD: On safety grounds, I oppose any weakening of the engineering standards regarding the implementation of stop signs.

I live in San Francisco, a city where almost every neighborhood street is controlled by a 4-way stop. All that this has done is lead to widespread disobedience of stop signs because one can be reasonably certain that 99% of stop signs will have neither crossing vehicles nor crossing pedestrians. It also leads to no end of frustration for drivers and cyclists alike (since cyclists generally ignore unnecessary stop signs). Implementing more unnecessary stop signs will only increase disrespect for stop signs.

Removing the requirement to conduct traffic studies means that stop signs without justification will become even more prevalent. People will decide to travel via residential streets rather than keeping onto the collector and arterial streets which have been designed to handle through traffic.

The MUTCD should require (“must”) municipalities to conduct engineering analyses before implementing new traffic signals.

C.P., California


I am commenting concerning the guidelines for setting speed limits. I write as a Village Prosecutor in a small New York Village. We have in our Village, limited access divided highway, local streets, feeder roads, and school zones.

I daily face the public and prosecute speeding tickets in all of those speed zones. It is normal to assume that most of my motorists are unhappy they have tickets, but it is a great aid to me if that speed limit is set legitimately; under-posting a limit is not practical for prosecution or Law Enforcement.

I would ask that speed limits be set according to scientific principles…The Davy and Warren report at FHwA spells out that the 85th percentile is correlated with lower accident incident rates. There are many calling for a rejection of scientific limit setting, and calling for a “feel-good” limit. What may be valid for a small area of pedestrian zones is not valid for open roads or feeder highways. NYSDOT uses 85th percentiles and most limits, save the largest interstates, are rationally posted.

Indeed, most of the calls for lower speed limits come from city-based Vision Zero advocates…and much of what they propose is a thinly veiled anti-car agenda, and against the body of highway engineering. It is not based in fact nor applicable to the vast majority of US roads.

It is much easier to enforce a reasonable limit…the fast driver truly is “too fast” and worthy of police intervention, and the normal driver is not breaking a law. Ratcheting down speed limits for feel good reasons just means rampant violation…the 55 mph NMSL is instructive here, and note the popular resistance to same and eventual repeal.

I respectfully request, as a prosecutor, that the limits are set according to 85th percentile limits outside of pedestrian/school zones.

C.R., New York


I wish to comment on the guidance for establishing speed limits as is discussed in section 2B.21. There are several decades of speed limit research that basically conclude that speed limits based on the practices of the majority drivers will result in efficient and safe use or our roadways. This acknowledged standard is the 85th percentile of free-flowing vehicles. Substantial federal and state-sponsored studies have proven the strong safety profile of speed limits based on this standard. Further these studies have shown the futility and counterproductive results of setting arbitrary and politically motivated speed limits.

The primary failure of the 85th percentile standard is that it is not meaningfully supported by the traffic engineering establishment and is often circumvented for narrow political interests to the disadvantage of the overall traveling public. This revision of the MUTCD further undermines the utility and validity of speed limits by deemphasizing the importance of honest speed surveys and ignoring the proven value of the 85th percentile standard.

Not only should the speed survey be mandated as a “shall” requirement but also the resulting speed limit “shall” be set at the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic, or the next higher five mph increment. This may not please those who dislike traffic in their neighborhoods but when implemented would give meaning to the objective of “Uniform Traffic Control devices.” It would also reduce the use of traffic laws for local income generation and pretextual stops of targeted populations.

J.B., Wisconsin


The proposed stop sign rules of Section 2B of the MUTCD that would add posted signs without a quantitative safety analysis and justification by a road engineer should be removed in favor of the existing rules in the 2009 Edition of the MUTCD. The proliferation of unwarranted stop signs makes people less likely to obey them. They become ‘nonsense’ stop signs posted randomly without a true need.

W.P., New Mexico


The proposal to allow all-way stop control based on pedestrian and bicycle volume must be considered carefully. Local jurisdictions may become subject to unjustified complaints from pedestrians and bicyclists, and install stop signs where not warranted.

The overuse of stop signs tends to decrease their effectiveness. When people become accustomed to unwarranted signs they become less likely to obey warranted as well as unwarranted signs. This would decrease safety.

Overuse of stop signs also decreases fuel economy, which is an environmental as well an economic cost.

M.M., Kansas

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