February 23, 2016
Several laws up for vote in the Michigan House of Representatives right now are centered around the possibility of changing the speed limit, perhaps raising it to as much as 80 miles per hour (mph) in certain parts of the state. Representative Bradford Jacobsen, (R-Oxford), who is sponsoring two out of the five reform bills up for a vote, has cited the desires of the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Michigan State Police in bringing the bills forward. According to Jacobsen, they want the ability to have more flexibility when setting speed limits, with the intent of better tailoring the limits to the particular location and community they are in. This is the second time Jacobsen has sponsored bills advocating changes in the speed limit; the first was in 2014.
The way that this group of bills was originally written was meant to eliminate speed traps, but the wording has recently been changed because it didn’t prevent local governments from lowering the speed limits too much. Because speeding tickets generate revenue for governments and also for auto insurance companies who can add points to a license and raise insurance rates for drivers ticketed for speeding, they have an interest in setting those limits a certain way. If studies show, for example, that most drivers exceed the speed limit in a certain location, governments and insurers may prefer to keep the limit low and issue more tickets.
Speed limits are determined in part by a traffic-engineering standard that uses the 85th percentile as its benchmark; this means that limits are set at the speed that is not exceeded by 85 percent of the drivers on a particular roadway. In addition, one of the bills in this package aimed to set speed limits no lower than the speed at which 75 percent of drivers drive. In terms of actual numbers, what this comes down to is that Michigan’s government could raise the speed limits to as much as 80 mph on rural freeways, 70 mph in more urban areas, and 60 or 65 mph on trunk line highways. In construction zones, the limit could be set at 45 mph regardless of location.
The biggest question that Michigan citizens, businesses, and lawmakers are asking themselves as they review these bills is whether these changes in speed limit are safe. It has been proven in studies that it’s preferable to set speed limits that are tied to people’s actual driving speeds rather than use artificially chosen limits that may increase variations in people’s driving and potentially lead to accidents. (This is the idea behind the 85th percentile rule.) But there are additional factors to consider for the state, such as whether the roadways can physically handle the increased speeds. There is also the fact that many drivers today are easily distracted while driving, whether by a call on a cell phone or by a GPS. Traveling at higher speeds could result in more fatalities in distracted driver crashes, not to mention the fact that higher speeds can cause increased safety risks to pedestrians and bikers. More speed can mean more serious accidents, but failing to acknowledge the traffic patterns in an area can cause the same problem.
Several groups, including Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, AAA Michigan, and the National Motorists Association, have voiced concerns such as these with the bills as they are currently worded. The bills did pass muster with most committee members, however, and will likely go before the Michigan House sometime in the next two weeks.