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How fast is too fast on gravel roads? Public responds

by Susan Bromley

January 11, 2012

Brandon Twp.- It's all about perception.

When it comes to speed limits, 1st Lt. Thad Peterson, Michigan State Police traffic services commander, said that a 25 mph speed limit on gravel roads leads residents to believe they are safer, when in actuality they are not, nor are drivers obeying that speed.

Conversely, a 55 mph speed limit leads residents to believe their roads are unsafe; however, Peterson said this works by causing non-motorized users to exercise more caution, and thus makes the roads safer.

A meeting on speed limit reform on Jan. 10 at Brandon Middle School drew a crowd of about 70, including supporters and detractors of Senate Bill 52 and companion House Bill 4037. State Sen. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc Township) and State Rep. Brad Jacobsen (R-Oxford, and bill co-sponsor) hosted the town hall meeting to discuss proposed legislation that would allow local governmental bodies to set or reinstate speed limits on gravel roads according to road conditions, topography, and traffic patterns which are known best by individuals residing in the locality instead of mandatory calculations.

A revised state law, enacted by the state legislature in March 2006, increased the speed limit on roads previously posted at 25 mph to 55 mph—even in residential areas. Since then, area residents and local officials have had mixed reactions to the change.

Peterson gave a presentation to those in attendance titled "Establishing Safe and Realistic Speed Limits," and opposed returning speed limits on gravel roads to 25 mph.

"The problem with this situation is people have a lot of misconceptions about what speed limits do," he said. "If we change the speed limits, oftentimes we don't change the speeds on roads. But we do change the percentage of people who are speeding. Most of you are here to get the 25 mph back, but according to Oakland County data, it won't."

Peterson explained that speed limits are established starting at the "85th percentile," meaning the speed at which 85 percent of drivers travel for a given road. Also taken into consideration is the geometry of a road, curves, problematic intersections (according to crash data), and roadside environment (residential, commercial, rural). Speed limits are also set during ideal driving conditions (dry roads, with free-flowing traffic).

Peterson cited a 1990 study in which 85 percent of drivers traveled 36.75 mph in areas posted 25 mph, and in which they drove 36.21 mph in unposted 25 mph zones. On primary roads, those speeds increased to 42.72 mph on posted 25 mph roads, and 45.42 mph on unposted roads.

"The number on the sign doesn't make much difference to speed," he said, "but it changes perception. We want to warn non-motorized users of the road that it is dangerous. Nothing will wreck you quicker than having to tell a parent, your child has been hit in the road."

Peterson said while the speeds won't likely change, compliance will. He also noted there is a decrease in head-on crashes caused by frustrated drivers who are passing slower vehicles. Higher crash rates happen from lower than average speeds, he said.

"The bottom line is making sure our roads are safe, and that will drive my vote on this issue," said Robertson. "It is incumbent on us that the law allows us to make a distinction. Those who live in the community are the ones who know where deadman's curve is."

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard agreed.

"I believe local control on traffic movement and speed is a good thing," he said by phone on Wednesday. "Someone from outside the community can't take into consideration the conditions at hand— children in the area, curb cuts, road conditions... There are a variety of issues. The best decision makers are the residents of the local communities. Why does Lansing always think it knows better? The needs and wishes of the community is best served by the community."

Among the people at the meeting speaking in favor of reducing the speed limits back to what they were prior to 2006 were Brandon Township Supervisor Kathy Thurman, who said that since the speed limits increased, people are driving faster, and the faster speeds create more dust, washboarding and potholes.

Several owners of horses who ride on the roads were in attendance and opposed to the current higher speeds on the roads. Milford Township Supervisor Don Green said he had received more than 150 e-mails from concerned residents, including equestrians, bicyclists, and walkers.

Peterson said he agreed with their concerns and said he has had people approach him in frustration with the higher speeds, asking, 'What am I supposed to do, keep my child out of the road?' To which he answers simply, 'Yes, you are.' He is reluctant to allow people to believe gravel roads are OK for non-motorized users.

Derek Kaiding, a Brandon Township resident, concurred.

"I'm all for local control as long as it's based on scientific data and protocol, not emotion," he said. "Don't let kids, ATVs, horses in the road."

A woman from Clawson who boards her horse in the area and rides on Thayer Road said the speed needs to be safe for all users of the road, not just drivers.

"There is going to be a catastrophic accident," she said. "I have a right to be there (riding)."

Ken Mollenhour, a Groveland Township resident, agreed with that sentiment.

"I should not have to get in a car or tank to go half a mile down the road to visit our neighbors," he said. "Alternate forms of travel should be considered, not disregarded, when setting limits. Having uniform limits is illogical when setting speeds for gravel roads... If you came on my road, the 85th percentile is 25 mph. I expect you gentlemen to put that back."

Peterson conceded that 55 mph might not be the right speed for all gravel roads, but he said going back to 25 mph wasn't the answer for any of the gravel roads.

"I'm receptive to amending the bill, but give MSP guidelines to pegging the limit," he said. "We need the proper data."

"Somewhere in the formula has to be a human factor," said OCSO Sgt. Pete Burkett, Brandon substation commander. "A lot of people see a sign that says 45 or 55 think if the state says I can go that fast, it must be safe. People are going to ride horses, bike, walk, jog on the roads, get their mail. You can't stop it in a rural area, it's the nature of a rural community and the people who drive in these areas understand that. Hopefully they will use caution, just like with deer coming out in the road. On the flip side, people who use roads for leisure activities have to understand vehicles use the road and they have to be doubly cautious."

Jacobsen was pleased with the meeting's turnout and citizen comments.

"25 is not practical," he said. "If we could get the speed limits to 35, it might satisfy both state police and the citizens. I will take it back to committee, and look at traffic count, subdivisions that run off those gravel roads, and the use and conditions of the roads, and bring those back and see if we can craft legislation that will include those aspects without a full blown traffic study that might cost the township a considerable amount of money. It will be several months before there is anything to vote on. I hope to have revisions to the bill by late spring or early summer."