Killing Speed 

Killing Speed

Missoula faces its own speed limit controversy

When state lawmakers introduce what are known as "housekeeping" bills, they usually do so expecting that the legislation will be strictly of the noncontroversial variety. Most times they get lucky. But occasionally just the title of a bill can be enough to attract an unwanted buzz of attention.

Such was the case for state Senator Dale Mahlum (R-Missoula), who introduced a bill this week at the request of the Montana Transportation Commission that would raise the "urban default speed limit" from its current speed of 25 mph to 35 mph. The bill arrives at an unfortunate time-just after the Senate recently passed legislation to reinstate a numerical speed limit on Montana's highways-and public sensitivities to road speed issues are already especially acute.

A recent study concluded that reducing traffic speeds reduces the severity and likelihood of pedestrian injuries. However, SB-420 is attempting to raise the “urban default speed limit” from 25 mph to 35 mph.
Photo by Chad Harder


In fact, SB-420 (as Sen. Mahlum's bill is known) hadn't even been introduced before it was already raising eyebrows among city planners and transportation experts alike.

The legislation, which applies only to primary and secondary state routes where no speed limit is posted, was intended to allow the Montana Department of Transport-ation to get around the very time-consuming process of conducting speed studies in rural areas, according to MDT chief attorney Tim Reardon.

Under existing law, speed limits in unposted areas are capped at 25 mph, unless a special speed study has been conducted to determine that another speed limit is more appropriate. Some designated areas, like schools, senior citizen centers and hospitals, are generally exempt from the law, allowing for lower posted speeds.

What has raised some concern, however, was the fear that this bill would intrude on the authority of localities like Missoula to establish their own speed limits within their jurisdiction.

Reardon says that this bill would have no impact on large urban areas like Missoula, where most speed limits have already been established. Nevertheless, language in the bill referring to an "urban district" sounds vague. The statutory definition of an urban district is "any continuous roadside development of one-quarter mile or more," which applies to virtually any town in Montana with a gas station and a pay phone.

Reardon says that this bill was requested after MDT traffic engineers began to find that the average speed of drivers in rural towns almost invariably hovered in the 35 mph range.

Opponents of the bill, including Missoula transportation consultant John Williams, argue that the bill is based on a faulty premise, that traffic engineers place too much weight on the "85th percentile" principle, which looks at the driving speeds of 85 percent of drivers in order to determine what is a safe speed limit.

"There is a tendency to confuse safety and convenience," says Williams. "We're trashing the places we're going through in order to make it easier for the drivers."

Statistics from a recent study conducted in Great Britain bear out the potential implications of even a 10 mph change in speed limits. Entitled "Killing Speed and Saving Lives," the study by the UK Department of Transportation demonstrates a direct correlation between motor vehicle speeds and fatality rates.

The study also concluded that reducing traffic speeds not only reduces the severity of pedestrian injuries, but also reduces their likelihood, since slower speeds allow drivers more reaction time and greater braking distances.

In a letter to Senator Mahlum, Allison Handler, a planner with Missoula's Office of Planning and Grants, voiced her opposition to this legislation, citing not only its adverse safety effects, but its economic implications as well:

"Faster traffic speeds are associated with a higher incidence of pedestrian-auto collisions, and with a concomitant increase in fatalities. The economy of Montana's cities depends upon the ability of pedestrians to navigate city streets safely-it is people, after all, not automobiles, who walk into our shops to make their purchases."

John Williams argues a similar case, claiming that "in effect, we're having MDT do our land-use planning for us." He says that their "clear-zone mentality," which suggests eliminating on-street parking, placing trees and other obstacles further back from road sides, and building large median strips (like those on Reserve Street), actually increases driving speeds and discourages pedestrian travel and other modes of transportation.

Reardon says that arbitrarily low speed limits are not observed by drivers unless there is constant enforcement, and that "people will naturally adjust their speed to the roadside environment."

"That's like putting a potato in the exhaust pipe to get the engine to slow down," said Williams. "You're working on the wrong end of things."

SB-420 was introduced Wednesday and referred to the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

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