Speed limits are widely flouted on many New Jersey roads, but don’t assume that residents don’t care how fast people are driving in their neighborhoods, through their downtowns and along the routes they use to get to work.
The latest example of how emotional speed limits can be followed a Republican lawmaker’s proposal to effectively raise them in some places as high as 80 or 85 mph. “Sounds logical,” one reader responded, while another wrote, “This is absolute lunacy!”
But how do speed limits in New Jersey get set anyway? 
It turns out that state law, engineers and — of course — politics all play a role in the process. And what happens when someone wants to change them is akin to the well-known phenomenon New Jerseyans refer to as NIMBY — Not In My Backyard.
“The rule of thumb is it’s 25 mph in front of my house and 40 in front of yours,” Doug Bartlett, a former manager of traffic engineering at the New Jersey Department of Transportation, said of the contradictions in how many residents view the issue. “They want you to go slow in the area where their kids are playing and they’re walking their dog, but once they get in their car … they’re interested in getting where they want to go.”
The starting point for creating speed limits is state law, which sets a maximum of 25 mph in school zones, business and residential districts; 35 mph in certain low-density business and residential districts; 55 mph or 65 mph on state highways and interstates; and 50 mph on all other roadways.
Those “statutory limits” can be raised or lowered, however, based on engineering studies that, according to federal guidelines, must consider the speed of free-flowing traffic and can also factor in crash data, roadway geometry, development along the road, parking and pedestrian traffic.
Bartlett, who is now a project manager at Bordentown-based MBO Engineering LLC, said residents, officials or other groups almost always ask for speed limits to be reduced, not raised. And just as often, he said, their concerns are not validated by engineering studies.
That was his experience at the DOT, at least. He estimated that 99 percent of the requests into the department were to lower speed limits, and 98 percent of the time the answer was “no.”
But that was before 2008, when the DOT was so overwhelmed by requests to reexamine local speed limits that the state authorized municipalities and counties to do it themselves.
“We were just drowning in a lot of requests and a lack of resources,” recounted Patricia Ott, the former director of the DOT’s Traffic Engineering Safety Division and now the owner of MBO Engineering.
Now, municipal and county politicians have the final say over speed limits and other traffic control devices on the vast majority of roads in the state, exposing the process to many of the same political pressures that influence other local decisions.
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The state retains jurisdiction over state roads.
Changes to speed limits often occur following an accident or in response to complaints from residents that drivers are speeding, experts said. They can be approved by officials as much to promote safety as to win votes.
The vagaries in local politics and administration help explain a fight in Teaneck over a 35-mph speed limit on River Road, which is owned by Bergen County. Concerned neighbors want the speed limit reduced by 10 mph, and even got the township council to back their suggestion, but they still must wait for an opinion from the county engineering department and a decision by the freeholder board, which has jurisdiction over county roads.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Bogota, the speed limit on River Road is already set at 25 mph.
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With the wide discretion New Jersey law gives for setting speed limits comes sharp disagreement over how they should be determined in practice.
For example, Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, announced a bill last month that would require the state to measure how fast people travel on its “limited access highways” — the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, Route 80 and other roadways with on-ramps and no cross streets — and then adjust speed limits to the so-called 85th percentile speed, or the speed at or below which 85 percent of free-flowing traffic moves.
Limits could be reduced for segments with high accident rates, but O’Scanlon’s bill would likely lead to speed limits well above the current maximum of 65 mph on many highways.
O’Scanlon argues “fact-based” speed limits would not change how fast most people drive, but they would reduce the variability between driving speeds and therefore lead to fewer crashes.
“People want engineering and fact-based laws,” O’Scanlon said in announcing the legislation. “It’s not the job of a greedy bureaucrat looking for ticket revenue or an elected official pandering.”
But that approach has many opponents, including Pam Fischer, a traffic safety consultant and the former director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety under Gov. Jon Corzine.
“Those speed limits are posted for a reason,” Fischer said of existing highway limits. “In the event that something bad does happen, it can be less catastrophic at lower speeds.”
Rather than raising speed limits, she said, New Jersey should encourage its drivers to slow down and understand that speed remains one of the top three reasons — along with booze and not wearing a seat belt — that people are dying on roadways.
“Speed isn’t something we should just be cavalier about,” she said. “It’s killing people and it’s a problem.”
Email: pugliese@northjersey.com