Another missed opportunity to save lives?

Almost two months ago, I took Florida to task for interfering with pediatricians’ efforts to try and save some kids’ lives. I talked about the fact that firearms kill a significant number of kids each year, and that when pediatricians ask about guns in the home, that’s what they’re trying to prevent.

The number one killer of kids, though, is car accidents. So, in the interest of being consistent, I feel the need to call out Massachusetts for this:

The speed limit on Route 3 is 55. The speed limit used to be 60. It was raised to 60 over 40 years ago when a study found 55 was too slow. There was never an engineering study supporting a reduction back to 55. 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 When the national speed limit was repealed in 1995 the highway commissioner ordered the low limit retained because he was afraid the state would be sued or otherwise embarrassed. So the speed limit is known to the transportation department not to be about safety.

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).

So far, there’s not much wrong here. I assumed (and I should know better) that driving slowly would be safer than driving faster. I assumed that the reason for the lower speed limit was to save lives.

But it happened that almost no one was following the 55 mph speed limit. So there seemed little reason to keep it:

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.

It may have been money, and not safety, on officials’ minds. It gets worse, though. It turns out that there is an unusually high accident rate on that road: (emphasis mine):

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.

I went and checked out the report:

A more substantive change is to possibly change the legal posted speed from 55 mph to 65 mph. The thesis is that with the speed limits raised, the speed differential will be effectively reduced. Discussion by the RSA team noted that the large speed range could in fact be influencing the frequency of lane-change maneuvers that currently occur increasing the risk of an incident. The more lane-changes that occur increase the possibility of driver error or errant vehicles.

The report is three years old. The speed limit is still 55 mph.

I’m in the business of trying to save kids’ lives. I’m not advocating that there should be no speed limits, nor am I saying that raising them is always a good idea. But up until I read this, I thought that keeping the speed limit at 55 mph would help to do that. It turns out, in this case, the opposite may be true. What bothers me even more is that Massachusetts likely knows it, and isn’t doing anything about it.  They should.

(h/t Alex Tabarrok)

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