Lower speed limits?

At the request of safety advocates and the city of Boston, and working with other senators, I added language to the Senate version of the recent municipal modernization bill that will give municipalities more flexibility to set lower speed limits.

Currently, under state law, vehicles may not be driven above speeds that are “reasonable and proper”, depending on conditions. The maximum “reasonable and proper” speed under ideal conditions in thickly settled areas is 30 miles per hour. All of my district is “thickly settled” — having houses closer together than 200 feet. Municipalities can set lower limits in school zones, but do not have general flexibility to set lower limits.

To set a lower limit (or higher limit) under current law, a municipality must go through an arduous procedure to establish the “85th percentile speed” based on actual speed studies. In other words, the town must do expensive traffic monitoring to compute the speed at or below which 85% of the vehicles are actually operating on the particular road segment. On some roads, this creates real risk that an effort to lower speed limits could end up increasing speed limits. It is very consistent with the spirit of the municipal modernization bill to make it easier for municipalities to lower limits without so much red tape.

The new language would give municipal authorities — the selectmen, or in a city, the traffic director — authority to set 25 mile per hour limits in thickly settled zones without further approval. They would also be able to lower the limit to 20 miles per hour in selected safety zones. The new powers would take effect only upon a vote of the municipality’s legislative body — the town meeting or town/city council.

From a safety standpoint, there is no question that lower speeds are desirable. In congested areas, the probability of collision goes up with higher speeds. Also, the severity of injuries from collisions goes up dramatically with speed.

The practical question is: how can we actually change the speed of vehicles? All of my experience as a driver and as someone involved in setting speed limits is that people drive at the speed they feel comfortable. That varies according to mood and road conditions and, of great importance, according to road design. Long straightaways with wide lanes, especially with green lights visible ahead, induce drivers to accelerate to unreasonable speeds. This is spectacularly exemplified by Beacon Street in Boston where cars routinely exceed 50 miles an hour in a very dense area.

I believe that, in areas where motorists tend to drive too fast, the solution is traffic calming road redesign. If motorists are driving 50 in a 30 mile per hour zone, they will likely continue to drive 50 in a 25 mile per hour zone.

I also share reservations that if local authorities can set lower speed limits with no oversight, they will create speed traps and/or set unreasonably low speeds in response to campaigns by well-organized neighborhoods which will divert traffic into neighborhoods who are less well-organized. I have thought of the state department of transportation as the guardian of fair uniformity in the setting of speed limits.

All of that said, road redesign is slow and expensive, and safety is an urgent priority. I was ultimately persuaded by MassDOT’s decision to endorse the language and was pleased to push for its adoption.

Through the efforts of Representatives Hecht, Livingstone, Provost and others, the language was also included in the House draft and is therefore likely to become law. Local authorities will have to make the ultimate choices within the new more flexible rules.

Response from WB on July 19

Great set of comments here — thanks to all for weighing in. A clear divergence of opinion. One commenter pointed out that many are concerned that lower limits will lead to over-enforcement, while many are concerned that we do not have enough enforcement now. One commenter worried that local authorities would not use sound engineering in their decision-making. I’m not too concerned about that — most towns do have access to and do use professional traffic engineers in their major decisions. At the end of the day, I’m comfortable with the idea of devolving this decision-making to a more local level — local authorities will be able to consider the many good arguments and options raised here.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

164 replies on “Lower speed limits?”

  1. I don’t approve of this change. The red tape is there for a reason: to prevent exactly the type of abuse that you mentioned. Setting lower speed limits won’t affect traffic speeds, it just gives towns more revenue from tickets.

  2. About a third of the commenters complain that they don’t need speed limits, they need enforcement.
    Another third are complaining that police will enforce the lower speed limits.

  3. I live on Wilson Ave and we have many children in this neighborhood. I have seen too many cars rush down our street to avoid the red light at Beech St and Trapelo or avoid stopped traffic on Trapelo Road by turning right onto Flett and then left onto Wilson Ave. Some of the parents have bought those yellow children signs with flags which does seem to help. I would love for this street to lower its speed limit as I dread hearing an agonizing cry of one of the parents.

    1. Deborah — Wilson is a common “cut through” for people when traffic gets to heavy on Trapello. It’s already posted with a low speed limit, so this bill will not stop that.

      What would help would be to make Trapello more traffic friendly and thus avoid the need for people to cut through your street.

      This bill will do nothing to improve your safety.

  4. Lower speed limits won’t do anything without enforcement. And the police don’t seem very interested in enforcing the traffic laws in the city.

  5. In NH the 35 mph speed limit, or at times 40 mph, on the straight country roads leading into towns is strictly enforced. The 30 mph speed limit in town is also strictly enforced. Perhaps strict enforcement could ensure greater respect and adherence to mph postings in Boston and environs before all mph limits are changed.

    But perhaps the change is necessary, given the pace of life, stress and traffic in Boston and surrounding towns. If enforcement is not a viable option, then by all means reduce the speed limits. But then you must enforce, or all change will be for naught.

  6. Even if the speed limit is lowered the problem is who’s going to enforce the law? We have a speed limit now and I never see anyone get stopped. In my area in Dorchester there are cars speeding on roadways such as columbia rd. I have seen cars go as fast as 60 mph 6:00 in morning. I never see any law enforcement. Enforcement is the answer.

    1. I believe the residents of Dorchester get pulled over quite a bit when they drive through Belmont…

  7. We are pleased with this effort to reduce speed in Boston. Thank you for your continued efforts for the safety of the people,

    Best wishes,
    Martha and Ivan Warmuth

  8. I agree with you, Senator:
    1. People will drive at their same comfortable speed whether the posted limit 25mph or 30mph.
    2. Diverting traffic to normally less-traveled and less-organized streets can be dangerous.
    3. The cost of a traffic study exceeds the value of the proposed change in speed limits.

    A suggestion: Many police officers hand out parking tickets or stand at road construction areas to control traffic flow. Give them the authority to pull speeders over and radio in for other officers to come to the sight to write speeding tickets. This wouldn’t interfere much with their jobs, and for the speeder, on top of receiving a speeding ticket, the extra delay would be an added deterrent to speeding. Then there may be no need to change current speed limit laws at all.

  9. Not a bad idea for areas of Boston, but it needs to be counter balanced by common sense in other areas. E.g., Massachusetts has approximately 90% of its intersections marked “No turn on red”. This only adds to congestion and does nothing for safety. How about getting rid of these, most anyway? We are the only state that does it to this extent, by far.

  10. When I travel the speed limit at 30, I have people tailgating me and actually honking at me to go faster, so I really do not think this will work, below 30 is just way too slow .

  11. Every city and town seems to be widening the sidewalks and adding bike lanes. Everyone HAS to go slower. I say NO for lowering the speed limits. You’re giving the cops another opportunity to raise revenue for their town. Enforce the “thickly settled” and “school zones” that you have now. I had a guy in back of me “beeping” at me to proceed across an intersection when I would be IN the intersection. He looked like he was going to get out of his car. Then the light changed to RED. I would have been “blocking” the intersection an subject to a ticket. Then again I might have been assaulted. I think you should leave us alone because you can’t move in the city any more, you can’t afford the parking fees and the MBTA cannot handle any extra people. There is going to be more incidents of “road rage”. Bicyclist are the biggest “rules of the road” breakers and they are getting killed left and right. The Boston “cow paths” are too narrow for cars, never mind bicycles. I think you are heading for a disaster.

    1. Build bicycle infrastructure and the cyclists will follow the rules. This has been proven in city after city: Wash DC, Portland OR, Minneapolis, Amsterdam, Dublin. Cyclists, like pedestrians, when the “break” the rules generally are doing so in order to survive on the streets that are dominated by cars.

  12. I recently got pulled over just past Union Sq. in Som’l at the end of April around 4:30PM on a Friday in “stop & go” traffic. My crime, while I was stopped, I remembered I had opened a Russell Stover chocolate Easter egg when I left Brighton. While I was stopped, I reached down and took a bite which took approx. 1 second. There was a cop about 25 ft. ahead near the sidewalk who waved me over. They were given Federal & State funds to watch for drivers that were texting. Since I don’t have “texting” (can’t afford it)and I wasn’t on the phone, he accused me “DWE-C” (driving while eating chocolate) The he tried to say that I didn’t have 1 hand on the steering wheel. My left hand was resting on my thigh holding the steering wheel. Believe me, I was holding onto the steering wheel because in Oct. I was rear-ended, I was hurt and my car totaled. At the time, the State Trooper refused to ask the other driver if he was texting. So Som’l drums up fake charges to get extra income. I had to pay $25 non-refundable fee to appeal ticket. Is this “justice” ? My State Rep. Mike Moran got rear-ended by a speeding drunk Mexican driver in Brighton dressed in a Mariachi costume. Rep. Moran thought it was fine ? The drunk Mexican told the State cops “you can’t do anything to me.” Som’l is a sanctuary city. Do they need the extra revenue for translators ? Haven’t you people learned from Ferguson, MO ? Using the common people as a “piggy bank” to fund the police. And the police over-stepping their power with phony charges. Then when you can’t pay the tickets, the fines and penalties add up until there’s warrant out for your arrest. There are NO jobs out there. The politicians let them go overseas. People are running from one part-time job to another. People are “squeezed” and living hand to mouth. This reminds me of the conquered peoples just trying to survive and having to pay “tribute” to the Romans.

    1. I hate to say this but this is one reason people do not like cops – their arbitrariness.

  13. Thank you for the lucid explanation and for the cooperative efforts of Reps Hecht, Livingstone and Provost amongst others.
    Setting speed limits is challenging. I’ve been testing by driving between 20 and 25 and 30 mph on different streets in my neighborhood around Oliver Street. Five miles an hour can pose a marked difference within several blocks in my neighborhood, from a thoroughfare like Mt Auburn Street, to long streets like Church Street which are becoming bypasses to Mt Auburn Street, to side streets like Pearl Street. Each require specific speeds to maintain safety.
    The Watertown City Council is usually pro active. This is possibly a contentious issue but necessary to address.
    Thanks for your alert.

      1. Senate 2430.
        Assuming the house version is H.4419
        I’m guessing that S.2430 passes, then the two bills are reconciled in committee and sent to the Gov’s office? Does he have line item veto?
        Thanks Will.

        1. The Governor does not have line item veto (which forces the legislature to act specifically on each line item changed), but he does have the power to send the bill back with an amendment which could alter or remove multiple sections. So, you do have an avenue for appeal, in effect. However, bear in mind, that MassDOT specifically endorsed this language.

  14. Once people are issued tickets for speeding over 20 mph over the limit, they should be suffering some significant financial damage in fines and the resulting insurance hike for several years. If we catch enough in Boston, perhaps our taxes will go down (HA). Thanks for your efforts Will!

  15. On a related subject:

    Why are the parking spaces in front of the Belmont Savings Bank in Belmont Center being eliminated? Those were convenient.

    Southbound on Leonard Street as you are about 100 feet from the underpass, there is barely enough room for 2 cars even though behind and forward of that is 2 lanes. They took space away from the right hand lane unnecessarily – there is plenty of room on the right to widen the lane because it’s grass.

    Not your fault, Will, but Belmont streets have long been in disgraceful condition.

  16. Thank you for the lucid explanation and for the cooperative efforts of Reps Hecht, Livingstone and Provost amongst others.

    The experience of driving slower (25 or 30 MPH)is telling. Some remember when the State and Municipalities began to enforce the Right of Way of pedestrians in cross walks. At first, it seemed ‘strange’.

    Even before the lower speed takes effect, town by town, we could begin to practice the lower speed to begin conditioning all drivers. On a one lane street in each direction, practice may have a material and immediate effect.

    You may want to judge the effect on safety.

    Could connections be safer: between neighborhoods and those our children would make by walking or biking to friends, school, or the park?

    Is a hurdle connections by walking or biking, or even bus, the intimidation of drivers: volume, speed, distraction, and aggression?

    Thanks for the definition of thickly settled.

  17. Will – As written, your amendment provides no no requirement that the new limits be legally posted. Why the need for “secret speed limits”?
    Feels like a speed trap to me.

  18. I wonder what is the environmental impact? Driving slower means lower shift; low shift means higher engine RPM; higher RPM means more emissions.
    Personally I would prefer if govt enforced the existing traffic rules.

  19. Dear Senator,

    Thank you for your work on this. I’m all for lower speed limits in thickly settled areas where I feel 25 or 20mph is a safe and sane rate of speed. There are always those who exceed the speed limit but many people travel too fast. Driving is one of the most dangerous things we can do. If flying had the same casualties, fewer people would fly. I have felt that an expansive public service campaign about the realities of driving would be hugely beneficial. We are aware of it but we’re not aware of it.

    Thank you!

  20. Not from NH- just observant. Sorry for your Union Sq. chocolate troubles- ridiculous.

  21. To start Will, you need to know my response isn’t due to receiving speeding tickets as I follow the limits but as I read thru all of the responses that were posted in regard to allowing cities and towns the ability to set lower speed limits I vehemently disagree that the past process was ‘arduous’ or that lowering the speed limits will do any good.

    The old process was designed so as to not allow arbitrary or selective changes made by cities and towns which didn’t warrant same. It also, as a side effect, didn’t allow changes made on a reactionary basis to those who ‘have someone on the inside’. (This happens all the time, sometimes being transparent and will more so now).

    Just as you pointed out, those who do 50 in a 30 zone will not hesitate to do 50 in a 25. The road conditions allow it so they will do it.

    One glaring error I noticed that was not addressed is that some respondents admitted to not driving or commuting during peak traffic times(I’m guessing many more didn’t admit so).

    I understand this is about safety but you failed to realize that it isn’t of any consequence to those who don’t drive or don’t do so at peak traffic times if commuting times are increased, if the traffic flow isn’t reduced by sheer volume.

    Across the board it isn’t the posted speed but the abysmal and selective enforcement of same that is the issue. There may be a flash-in-the-pan reaction at commuting times but no more.

    All this will serve to do is make it more lucrative for speed traps to be set up to increase revenue to cities and towns at a higher rate under the guise of safety.

    Just when is this lower limit supposed to be a benefit if rush hour speeds are reduced by sheer volume of cars? Will there be any increase of safety at 10pm when there are few cars on the road and are forced to drive 25 instead of 30 on a road that has no issue handling same? No, There will just be selective enforcement on those who have no traffic to deal with and are forced to drive 5 MPH slower with no added benefit. The speed traps will be flourishing in the off hours when safety isn’t a question, traffic is non-existent and travel is slowed with no added value. How about we START to properly and consistently enforce those laws rules and regulations we have RATHER THAN concoct more feel-good reactionary encumbrances on those, your constituents, who are subjected to roller coaster enforcement, who need to get to work to pay taxes and subsequently your wages?

  22. As you say, drivers tend to drive the speed they’re comfortable at. As part of this, it would have been nice if the the speed limits on certain limited access highways was addressed.

    55MPH for stretches of Rt 3, 93 and 95 to NH are ridiculous and *nobody* follows them. This means that speed enforcement is essentially an arbitrary tax.

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