Speed limits on highways.


Can you tell us where you would stand on this bill?


This is hearsay, but it came from someone involved in the project. When Rt 3 between Burlington and NH was widened, the speed limit was never changed. My understanding is that after a road is majorly reworked, a speed survey is done and the speed limit is set to the 80th percentile of what drivers are traveling at. The story goes that the MA DOT ordered a survey but the chief of the MSP said to keep the speed limit at 55mph.

Anyone who travels this road knows that pretty much nobody drives 55 on Rt 3 and the road is very wide with good visibility. The cynic in my says that the speed limit is kept at 55 for revenue enhancement. I’d really like to think that’s not the case though.

16 replies on “Speed limits on highways.”

  1. Haven’t decided. I am truly of two minds.

    Modestly slower speeds make a big difference in gasoline consumption and they also are much safer.

    On the other hand, we are all the same — when you see an open road, your foot drops a little closer to the floor. The older I get, the less interested I am in writing laws that no one will really follow. I’m also very uncomfortable with the discretion that unenforceable rules give to traffic enforcers — if an officer can lawfully stop almost anyone on the road, then he or she may be more inclined to engage in some form of profiling.

  2. This video on the topic is worth watching. If nothing else, it’s quite humorous.


    In MA, some highways are 65 (495, 90, 95 after the 128 split) are 65mph and the rest are 55mph. It should be fairly easy to compare these for safety.

    Obviously gas mileage is hard to argue, though with new cars (like the new Honda Accord which gets 40mph on the highway even though it’s not a hybrid) minimize this difference.

  3. Speed limits are good things. Speed limits make our roads safer. The Massachusetts Highway Department, in its 2012 Procedures for Speed Zoning on State and Municipal Roadways (http://www.mhd.state.ma.us/downloads/manuals/speedZoning_0512.pdf), makes this highly persuasive argument. “The principal benefit of properly established speed zoning is to provide a means for police officers to apply enforcement to those who do not conform to speeds considered reasonable and proper by the majority of the motoring public. Public opinion will be on the side of the police who are enforcing a reasonable maximum speed. The former federally mandated 55 mile per hour national speed limit on the Interstate System clearly shows that an unreasonably low speed limit is neither enforceable nor has the long term support of the general public.” (page 23)

    So, why is the speed limit on U.S. Route 3 still set at 55 miles per hour?

    Clearly, the current speed limit on Route 3 cannot be supported by the procedures for setting speed limits outlined in the state’s own document. According to the state, “a prerequisite to establishing speed regulations… is a comprehensive engineering study.” The goal of the study is to “establish a speed limit that is safe, reasonable and self-enforcing.” (page 4)

    The engineering study is based on the assumption that 85% of people, left to their own devices, will drive at a safe and reasonable speed over a stretch of highway. The people who are flying past 85% of the traffic are the drivers who are not conforming to a reasonable and proper speed, and should be subject to police enforcement. The state procedures manual explains that, “this method is based on numerous studies that indicate that the majority of motorists are prudent and capable of selecting safe speeds.” (page 4) The state further explains that this method “is the national standard for establishing safe speed limits.”

    State procedures for speed checks specify measurements on “average weekdays at off –peak hours and under ideal weather conditions.” As a Route 3 commuter, I don’t have the radar gun or laser gun specified by the state engineers for the purposes of collecting data on vehicular speed. However, I do have a car, and I can sit in the middle lane, choose a speed, and observe the traffic around me.

    Driving 55 miles per hour in the middle lane of Route 3 makes one feel like a boulder in the middle of a stream. Cars, trucks, school buses, practically the entire world is moving right or left to avoid the mid-stream obstruction. It’s easy to tell that you are not traveling faster than the federal standard of 85% of the other drivers; you are lucky to be traveling faster than two percent of the drivers on the road.

    This observation is confirmed by a memo by Massachusetts Highway Department Regulations Engineer Richard F. Wilson (text below), who reported on October 31, 2005 of a “recent and ongoing speed limit study.” The memo proposed increasing the speed limit on Route 3 from 55 to 65 MPH based on the following facts:

    The 85th percentile speed ranges between 73 and 76 MPH.
    The speed limit is set at the 2nd percentile, with “98% of motorists traveling at speeds in excess of 55 MPH.”
    “A 65 MPH speed limit may also serve to increase the speed of a large percentage of motorists presently traveling at a speed lower than 65 MPH, thereby decreasing the speed differential, which in turn will reduce conflict and make the roadway safer.”

    Clearly, the Route 3 speed limit does not conform to state and federal standards. While this is the most egregious case in the Commonwealth, it is not unique. The state legislature adopted a 65 miles per hour maximum in 1992, following the repeal of the nationally-mandated 55 miles per hour limit. The state bureaucracy, however, did not see fit to raise speed limits. The legislature forced the issue in 1996, when it enacted Section 17A of chapter 90 of the General Laws, which overruled the bureaucracy and set the speed limit on 400 miles of highways to 65 miles per hour.

    At that time, Route 3 was left off the list of highways for legislative intervention because it was still a narrow, four-lane road that threaded its way between lots of rocky obstacles. Since then, Route 3 was widened to six lanes, the rocky median has been removed, and we now have a road with wide lanes, gentle curves, and expansive sight lines. Despite its extraordinary design, the road is stuck with an unreasonably low speed limit that is neither enforceable nor has the long-term support of the general public.

    H.3057 is the legislative remedy for the Route 3 problem, and it would add Route 3 to the list of legislatively-mandated 65 mile per hour zones. Given the state bureaucracy’s refusal to follow its own procedures for setting a speed limit on Route 3, this legislative action is necessary to allow safe and reasonable drivers to conform to a more reasonable speed law. I urge the general court acts on this common-sense legislation, and brings some regulatory reasonableness to this important highway.


    TO: John Blundo, P.E., Chief Engineer
    THROUGH: Neil E. Boudreau, Assistant Traffic Engineer
    FROM: Richard F. Wilson, Regulations Engineer
    DATE: October 31, 2005
    SUBJECT: Speed Zoning – Route 3 – Burlington to Tyngsborough

    This memorandum is relative to the results of the recent and ongoing speed limit study conducted by the Boston Office Speed Zoning section the newly reconstructed Route 3 from Burlington to Tyngsborough. The existing posted speed limit (55 MPH) on the subject section of State Highway reflects conditions prior to the aforementioned reconstruction and subsequently is not in conformance with MassHighway’s Speed Zoning Manual. We are hereby proposing that the speed limit on this highway should be changed to 65 miles per hour for the following reasons:

    • The 85th percentile on the main line of the roadway ranges between 73 to 76 MPH. The posted speed limit is 55 MPH and is obviously being routinely ignored by motorists.
    • At present, approximately 98% of motorists are traveling at speeds in excess of 55 MPH, despite the presence of enforcement activity throughout. This creates a situation where the state police must decide what they think is an appropriate speed limit. A 65 MPH limit will aide enforcement by eliminating motorists traveling at a more appropriate and realistic speeds from consideration (65 and below) and allows them to focus on the high-end violators
    • Trial Runs in both the northbound and southbound direction were conducted at 65 MPH in the right hand travel lane, and only one vehicle was passed in each direction on the entire twenty-mile stretch of Route 3.
    • A 65 MPH speed limit may also serve to increase the speed of a large percentage of motorists presently traveling at a speed lower than 65 MPH, thereby decreasing the speed differential, which in turn will reduce conflict and make the roadway safer.
    • Although the 85th percentiles on the CD (collector and distributor) roads at the junction with I-495 and Route 110 were 68 MPH, it is recommended that these sections of highway be posted at no higher than 55 MPH, due to the proximities of the entrance and egress ramps to I-495 and Route 110 and constant lane change activity experienced in this area.
    • Attached are the Speed Determination Sheets and a map detailing the locations and results of the speed study

    If more information is desired, please advise.

    A copy of this document is posted online here:


  4. Paul, sounds like a pretty good argument as to Route 3!

    I’d almost certainly support raising Route 3, as improved, to the higher state limit of 65. Not sure about other routes going any higher than 65 though.


  5. I wanted to add to the discussion about raising the speed limit on Route 3 to 65. This has been proposed a couple of times since the road was rebuilt, but the State Police say they are strongly opposed and so the bills have not been successful. The State Police say that when the speed limit is 55, people actually drive mostly at 70 and that is the limit that is enforced in practice. If the speed limit were 65, they say, people would travel at 75 to 80, which is too fast for a road with relatively short distances between exits and on ramps.

    Barbara Miranda
    Chief of Staff to Senator Brownsberger

  6. If the limit enforced in practice is 70, shouldn’t the limit actually be 70?

    When the limit is 55, there are people who are going to take the limit seriously. Some of them even venture into the left lane. This creates a dangerous obstruction on a highway where the de facto speed limit is 70, and the conflicts in speed makes the road more dangerous. The MassHighway report on the road makes that precise argument.

    The road does not have relatively short distances between ramps. The road was constructed within the past 10 years and built to the highest standards in the state. The lanes are wide, the acceleration/deceleration lanes are long, and the sight lines are excellent.

    98% of the traffic exceeds the 55 mile limit. Of course the state police wants to be able to pull over 98% of the cars on the road for speeding. It makes the job very easy and invites selective enforcement.

    Let the engineers set the limit, let the police enforce that reasonable limit.

  7. There’s clearly a reason Rt 3 is more dangerous than other roads of it’s kind — the answer is simple — the speed limit is too low. Yep, you heard me, too LOW. When you create an artificial condition like posting a speed limit that’s too low, you create a bifurcated class of drivers prone to speed variance with a vengeance. Those who “want” to obey the speed limit (and feel it’s their “right” to drive the left lane at the limit) and those who simply ignore ridiculous limits and drive the 85th percentile speed (the majority). When you get an entitled class of slow drivers mixing with a majority who (by common agreement) ignore the artificial limit, your get accidents.

    I know Rt is convenient for the State Police — at the end of the month it’s pretty easy to meet the quota by simply setting up a speed trap over the second hill on the northbound side of Rt 3. But we have ask ourselves, should we sacrifice safety just to help the police meet their fiscal goals? I think not.

    It’s time to let Traffic Engineers dictate speed limits and take them out of the hands of those with vested interests. We’ll all be safer.

    Studies show higher speed limits do not increase accidents
    Read more at http://www.ksl.com/?nid=757&sid=26729407#KEyrS3dTk3PsTjYz.99

    Don’t higher speed limits cause more accidents and traffic fatalities? (and other questions)

    Canada’s low speed limits are contributing to accidents

  8. Everyone has an opinion.
    Some people’s opinions are backed up by years of studies and experience in traffic engineering. Then there are the Police. They are simply not qualified to offer anything other than an anecdotal opinion in this case.

    But let’s assume they are right (which no studies actually support)

    If we raise the limit to 65, people travel 75. THATS THE SPEED THE ROAD WAS DESIGNED FOR!

    Prior to the upgrade, Rt 3 was designed to 60MPH standards.
    Traffic engineers designed new Route 3 to meet FEDERAL requirements for a 75MPH use road (Interstate Highway class). The on-ramps, the signage, the curves and grading are all specified to a 100MPH use with an anticipated 75MPH speed limit.

    That means that if we set the limit to 65 and people drive 75 THEY ARE DRIVING 25 MPH UNDER THE INTENDED MAX USE and are certainly driving in the “safe driving” range. There is no difference between Rt 3 and other 65 MPH posted roads, except (a) it’s built for HIGHER speeds and (b) that it’s a favorite speed trap.

    Constraining traffic on a road like this is not only downright silly, it’s dangerous, as proved by the number of traffic incidents on Rt 3 vs. other roads.

  9. PS. If we don’t want to listen to our state traffic engineers, why not just fire them and save some tax dollars?

  10. Rich and friends:

    H.3057 is the legislative remedy for the Route 3 problem, and it would add Route 3 to the list of legislatively-mandated 65 mile per hour zones. Given the state bureaucracy’s refusal to follow its own procedures for setting a speed limit on Route 3, this legislative action is necessary to allow safe and reasonable drivers to conform to a more reasonable speed law.

    Please encourage folks to contact their legislators in support of H.3057.

  11. Unfortunately vestiges of the 55mph limit remain, in part because police like the 55mph limit which lets them write tickets at will whenever they need an increase in revenues. John Carr at the National Motorists blog gives a particularly egregious example from Massachusetts:

    The speed limit on Route 3 is 55. The speed limit used to be 60….It was reduced by executive order in 1973 to comply with the national speed limit. When the national speed limit was repealed in 1995 the highway commissioner ordered the low limit retained…
    It gets better. Route 3 was completely rebuilt a decade ago. The design speed for the project was 110 km/h (68 mph). The design speed is like a warranty: nothing in the road design requires a driver to go slower than 68 mph, not even on a wet road at night (the design conditions).

    The average speed is not far from the design speed. The 85th percentile speed, which is supposed to be used for setting speed limits, is around 75 mph. A little over by my measurement, which found 1% compliance with the speed limit.

    Eventually the absurdity of the 55 mph speed limit sunk in and in 2006 MassHighway traffic engineers recommended a speed limit increase. State Police vetoed the change, preferring the 99% violation rate that let them write tickets at will. Police have no legal role in setting speed limits. Somebody in the Romney administration weighed the risk of losing ticket revenue against the risk of being blamed for accidents. Police won.
    After engineers lost that fight people began to worry about the high accident rate on Route 3. The state hired a consultant to do a Road Safety Audit. The consultant’s report blamed the low speed limit, among other factors, for the high crash rate. The report explicitly recommended raising the speed limit.
    Three years later, state officials have not followed the advice of their engineers, their consultant, or 100,000 drivers per day. State police are still out there running speed traps and helping keep the road as dangerous and profitable as they can.
    – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/09/be-safe-break-the-law.html#sthash.uA1E6o3n.dpuf

Comments are closed.