Thursday, July 30, 2009

Speed Traps Exposed

A recent Gazette article proved that it's still good for something, after all.

Not so fast: Thousands get tickets in Kalamazoo where speed limits may be set too low

The article exposes the fact that the city of Kalamazoo has been handing out lots of tickets to drivers for violating a speed limit that isn't legal. Specifically, the section of Park Street going down Westnedge Hill, where the posted limit is 30 mph.

KALAMAZOO -- The posted speed limit on South Park Street is 30 mph.

But the limit isn't legal and hasn't been for more than a decade.

The reason: State officials didn't perform a traffic study -- necessary to establish a speed limit -- when they assumed control of the Kalamazoo road in 1998.

That means thousands of people have been ticketed for exceeding 30 mph when, in fact, the speed limit is 55 mph -- the default limit for state roads where there's no legally established speed limit, according to Michigan's Vehicle Code.
A limit of 30 mph is too low on that stretch of road. You have to ride your brakes hard the whole way down to stay under it.

The Gazette lists the top speed trap locations in the city.
South Park, from Parkwood Drive at the top of Westnedge Hill to West Vine Street, ranked No. 1 among Kalamazoo streets for speeding tickets written in the city between April 1, 2008, and March 31, a Kalamazoo Gazette investigation found.

Rounding out the top five speeding hot spots in the city, three of the four may have posted speed limits that are set too low, the Gazette investigation found.

Those stretches of road, ranging from a few blocks to 2.5 miles, are:

• Portage Street, between Bryant Street and Washington Avenue.
• Stadium Drive, between Oliver Street and Drake Road.
• South Burdick Street, between Crescent Drive and Maple Street.

The tickets written for speeding on those four roads accounted for 46 percent of the nearly 6,000 speeding tickets issued in Kalamazoo during the 12-month period, the Gazette found.
Thankfully, there is at least one government employee who takes a reasonable position on this issue.

"It's obvious the general population is not adhering to the speed limit and doesn't feel the speed limit is proper," said Spc. Sgt. James Campbell, a Michigan State Police traffic-safety expert who conducts speed studies on state roads in Southwest Michigan.

Campbell said speed limits on roads where there is an inordinate number of speeding tickets are "probably artificially low."

"I hate to call it a speed trap because I don't think it's intentional," he said. "It's usually (kept low) for a false reason like safety."
Not everyone agrees, of course.

That's a recommendation the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety opposes.

"Our department believes the current speed limit as set is the appropriate speed," Public Safety Assistant Chief Brian Uridge said.

In the 12-month period examined by the Gazette, Public Safety officers ticketed 1,138 drivers for speeding on South Park Street, or nearly 20 percent of all speeding tickets written in that period.

Uridge said the department decides where to do traffic enforcement based on accident rates and citizen complaints.

Accidents aren't a problem, however, along that stretch of South Park. It didn't rank among the top 10 Kalamazoo streets where crashes occurred since May 2008, according to Public Safety.
At least now that we know that the city has been violating the law, justice will be done, right?

But drivers who've been ticketed there shouldn't pin their hopes on appealing the citation and having the points removed from their driving record, Willis and other attorneys said.

"To have such a low speed coming down a hill, it's got to be wrong," Kalamazoo attorney Gary Tibble said. "But I don't think a judge would automatically throw it out. It probably wouldn't invalidate the ticket."
The article goes on to discuss the speed limit on Stadium Drive, a wide, flat, five lane road for which 40 mph is simply too low.

In 1989, despite a state police traffic study that said Stadium's 50 mph speed limit should continue, city and state officials successfully lobbied MDOT to lower it to 40 mph, Campbell said.

That's the kind of wayward thinking that people have," Campbell said. "You may not like a 50 (mph speed limit) because you think it's too fast, but it's not."

Three intersections on Stadium -- at Howard, Drake and Rambling Road -- rank among the 10 most accident-prone intersections in the city since May 2008, according to Public Safety.


But if the number of crashes and speeding tickets is high, then there's a good chance the speed limit is too low, Campbell said.

That, he said, can pose problems on two fronts: Pedestrians have a false sense of security, and motorists drive aggressively -- such as over-accelerating to pass the few motorists who follow the 25 mph speed limit.

"You have a tendency for people to put themselves out there in harm's way because they think traffic is going slower," he said.

A sidebar to the articles notes that almost five times as many tickets are handed out in Kalamazoo as in Portage. Does anyone believe that drivers are five times as dangerous in Kalamazoo?

Of course Kalamazoo is using the speed traps to make money. The safety concerns are bogus. As Campbell recognizes, most drivers will drive a reasonable safe speed if left to their own devices. That's why speed limits are properly set based on the speeds that people actually drive.

Of course it's true that all else being equal, crashing at a higher speed is more deadly. But this does not explain the cause of a crash in the first place. A significant factor contributing to crashes is a significant difference in speeds between drivers on the same road.

When speed limits are obviously set too low, many drivers quite understandably ignore them. But the difference between their speeds and the few who follow the limits causes more crashes. Thus lower speed limits lead to more crashes.

But Kalamazoo would rather make money than save lives.

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