January 04, 2012 - Two pieces of state legislation designed to restore local control over the speed limits on gravel and dirt roads will be the subject of a town hall meeting set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10 at Brandon Middle School (609 South Ortonville Rd.) in Ortonville.
"Basically, it takes (the law) back to where we were before where local governments can request a speed limit be set for a road," said state Rep. Brad Jacobsen (R-Oxford), who's co-hosting the meeting with state Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc).
The meeting will focus on Senate Bill 52 and its companion House Bill 4037. Both bills seek to restore the legally posted speed limits on gravel and dirt roads to what they were prior to Nov. 9, 2006, when Public Act 85 of 2006 went into effect and raised them from 25 to 55 miles per hour in the majority of cases.
Under the proposed legislation, the pre-Nov. 9, 2006 speed limits would remain in effect unless a township, village or city requests the county road commission change them and the county agency determines it's appropriate.
"I hope that we'll be able to make a change in how the law is set up, so we will be able to control more of the local speeds on the back roads," Jacobsen said. "But I'm not terribly optimistic that we're going to be able to go a back to 25 (mph) for a lot of these roads as we had in the past due to lack of support from state police statistics."
Jacobsen, who served as an Oxford Township Trustee from 1984 to 2000, explained the way it used to work was if a local government wanted a speed limit change, officials submitted a request to the road commission, who consulted with the sheriff's department, who consulted with the state police.
"It was just sort of a perfunctory sign-off – 'Go ahead. We don't care. Reduce the speed limit,'" he said. "There weren't really a lot of requirements. You just sort of had to prove to them that it was a safety issue and you needed to have (traffic) slowed down."
Public Act 85 of 2006 changed all that by outlining specific requirements necessary to change a speed limit on a gravel road. Under it, in order for a gravel road to be 25 mph, it must have 60 or more vehicular access points within a half-mile stretch.
Vehicular access points are defined as side streets, driveways and private roads.
Gravel roads having 45 to 59 vehicular access points within a half-mile were set at 35 mph, whereas those with 30 to 44 access points were posted at 45 mph. All other roads with no posted speed limit are considered 55 mph.
The 2006 law eliminated the 25 mph posted speed limit on 283 gravel and dirt road segments within Oakland County.
Of those, 248 road segments became unposted, meaning drivers are required to drive at a safe speed given the conditions, with the maximum allowable speed being 55 mph.
Of the remaining county road segments, 32 were posted at 45 mph and three at 35 mph.
Locally, the state law affected a total of 41 roads that were previously posted as 25 mph in Oxford and Addison townships. For a list of them all, see the shaded box to the right.
In Oxford, 20 sections of gravel road increased to an unposted 55 mph, while Addison saw 19 of its roads go to the maximum limit. Two sections of gravel roads in Oxford increased from 25 to 45 mph.
At the time the 2006 law was approved and took effect, there was quite an uproar from the public. Many citizens and local officials felt the increased speed limits were too fast and would pose a significant safety hazard to motorists, pedestrians and those living along affected gravel roads.
Jacobsen said his office still receives a few complaints from those who want the law changed.
"We get a couple of calls or e-mails a week," he said. "When there's an article in the paper, it will go up to maybe half a dozen for a couple of days."
Jacobsen agreed the speed limits need to be lowered on a number of local gravel roads.
"Having 55 (mph) as an unwritten speed limit for these back roads doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.
However, Jacobsen also doesn't believe some of these roads should go back to 25 mph when "they may be more reasonably set at 35 or 45 (mph)."
After years of driving local roads while making deliveries for his family's business, Jacobsen's Flowers in Lake Orion, he said the speed limits of "certain roads should be reduced strictly from a safety standpoint" because they have sharp curves, spots that tend to wash out or areas with a softer base that results in more potholes.
"What's funny is people outside of this area think that Oakland County is all paved roads and all built-up," Jacobsen noted. "They're really not aware of what we have on the north and west sides of the county. We've still got a lot of rural area."
Jacobsen believes other roads, especially those with a higher concentration of population, should have lower speed limits because "they're a straight shot so people drive faster down them." He cited Coats and Sanders roads in Oxford Township as two examples.
During the town hall meeting, representatives from the Michigan State Police will make a presentation that Jacobsen hopes the public will find informative.
"They're going to talk about how they set speed limits and the procedures they use," he said. "I think part of that will be their justification as to why they don't think (the law) should be changed."
In the past, the state police have argued that a low number on a speed limit sign doesn't make people drive any slower or make a gravel road any safer. According to the state police, people tend to drive at speeds they feel are safe and appropriate, regardless of the posted limit.
The state police have also previously argued that many of the gravel roads in Oakland County were illegally posted at 25 mph because of pressure put on the road commission by local government officials and residents.
Jacobsen hopes the Jan. 10 presentation will help "the public better understand why the speed limits were removed and the state police's justification for it."
But he also wants to give citizens "a chance to express to the state police their concerns based on what they're seeing on their local roads."
"After seeing the presentation of the way (the state police) calculate these things, I think the public will be more understanding of their position and maybe we can find a happy medium somewhere in between," Jacobsen said.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.