Despite fixes to Route 66, old rules still slow vehicles to 25 mph
NORTHAMPTON - I was heading to work along Route 66 when I saw the flashing blue lights of a Northampton Police cruiser approaching behind me. Who were the police after? I wondered.
Then the answer became obvious. They were after me.
When I pulled over, the officer told me I had been traveling 42 miles per hour. Did I know what the speed limit was? he asked.
Along the curving, slightly downhill eastbound section of Route 66 I had been traveling on — just over the Westhampton line — the limit is 25.
I did know that, I told the officer. I travel that stretch of road almost every day, and exceeding the 25 mph limit by 17 mph was a fluke. Honest.
The officer gave me a warning, and I drove off. Slowly.
I now observe the 25 mph limit religiously, and I haven’t been stopped again.
Instead, something else is happening: I’m making other drivers angry — really angry, sometimes. They want to go faster than 25, a desire they express by tailgating with a vengeance. In the worst-case scenarios, they zoom past me — sometimes, even, on the curve.
The 25 mph limit, I’m convinced, isn’t preventing dangerous driving. It’s causing it.
The low speed limits are a holdover from the days when Route 66 in Northampton was bumpy, winding and narrow, conditions that were a factor in a number of accidents. And despite major road work four years ago that eliminated many, if not all, of the hazards, a city councilor strongly defends the existing limits.
But it turns out that drivers who don’t agree with those speed limits have recourse: a process by which they can be reviewed — and raised, if a traffic study shows they don’t suit the redesigned road.
Built for 35 mph
With the exception of the intersection at Loudville Road, which has poor sight lines, I think that 35 is a reasonable speed for Route 66 from the Westhampton town line all the way to the intersection with Florence Road.
Highway officials back that up.
Much of the Northampton section was reconstructed in 2008, eliminating or mitigating its dangerous curves and creating wide shoulders. Ned Huntley, the city’s director of public works, said of the improvements, “The state designed this road for 35 mph. You could probably do 50 on it.”
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation confirms that Route 66 in Northampton can safely accommodate traffic going 35 mph.
In a letter to the Gazette earlier this year, Jonathan Kahane of Westhampton complained that the Route 66 speed limit goes from 45 mph in Westhampton to 25 mph in Northampton with no warning. “25 mph on the widened and straightened Route 66 is unreasonable and even dangerous,” Kahane wrote. He called for Northampton officials to look into whether the 25 limit was appropriate.
Lynne Shapiro, who has resided for more than 20 years at 987 Westhampton Road in Northampton, a stretch posted at 30 mph, says that before Route 66 was reconstructed, the low limits made sense: “It used to be extremely curvy.”
The repaving, widening and straightening changed that, she says.
“I don’t find 66 particularly dangerous,” Shapiro said last week. “The truth is it could safely be driven up to 40 under normal conditions.”
The 25 and 30 mph limits are no longer needed, she said.
“It’s almost hard to drive that slow for that little section.”
The 85th percentile rule
Huntley said that speed limits are generally determined by a national standard known as the 85th percentile, which holds that the proper speed for a road is the speed that 85 percent of drivers travel along it. According to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, “This method is based on numerous studies which indicate that the majority of motorists are prudent and capable of selecting safe speeds. ... The ideal speed limit is both acceptable to the prudent driver and enforceable by our police departments.”
Highway officials have made adjustments when speed limits have proved too low. The DOT points to the former 55 mph limit on the nation’s interstate system, saying it “clearly shows that an unreasonably slow speed limit is neither enforceable nor has the long term support of the general public.”
I frequently see Northampton Police cruisers along 66, trawling for speeders. I have no problem with that: If drivers are exceeding the limit, myself included, they should be stopped. But those two qualifiers — whether a speed limit can be enforced, and whether it has the long-term support of the public — are significant.
Is the speed limit enforceable?
Northampton Police Department records show that as of mid-October, officers had made 30 traffic stops on Route 66 in 2012, and had issued 20 civil citations. Based on my observations, if the police had the resources to monitor speeding 24/7, there could be 30 traffic stops every day.
As for support of the general public ...
At a church supper in Westhampton, when I asked my table mates what they thought of the speed limit on 66 in Northampton, their indignant sputtering left little doubt of their opinion. The speed limits are ridiculous, they agreed.
When I moved to Westhampton in 1978, Route 66 — a 17-mile road that runs from Northampton on the east to Huntington on the west — was winding, bumpy, narrow and dangerous. The stretch where I was stopped by police earlier this year was then the site of such serious accidents that it was unofficially known as Deadman’s Curve.
Beginning in the 1970s the state proposed improvements that would address that curve and other issues. U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte obtained $12 million in federal funding.
Westhampton and, later, Huntington signed on, and by 2000 Route 66 in those two towns was in good shape. Northampton chose to hold off, due to objections from residents and property owners along the road. The work would take too much of their land, they said. A better roadway would encourage drivers to go too fast.
In 2002 a small stretch in Northampton, from the Westhampton town line to Loudville Road, was reconstructed. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the state and the city came to an agreement on a plan for improving the rest of Route 66.
Residents were still concerned. There were public forums, and informational meetings arranged by City Councilor Marianne LaBarge and state Rep. Peter Kocot.
Part of LaBarge’s efforts involved lobbying to keep the speed limits as is. Even those were ineffective, she contends: “People were flying — I mean flying,” she said in a recent interview.
Huntley, the highway chief, recalls that LaBarge and other residents discussed having a traffic study done to determine the appropriate speeds on the new and improved 66. Huntley said he offered a blunt take on the likely result: “OK, people, if you want us to do a speed regulation study I can guarantee that the new speed limit will be 45 miles per hour.”
“With that information in hand,” Huntley said, “she asked that we don’t do the speed study.”
Sara Lavoie, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, confirmed that. “There was not a request to review the limits following the reconstruction.”
Instead, the existing speed limits — which date back to 1982 — remained in place.
A DOT document from that year lists the eastbound limits as follows: Starting at the Westhampton town line, 0.97 mile is posted at 25 mph; 0.59 mile is 30 mph; 1.83 miles are 35 mph; 0.34 mile is 30 mph; 0.94 mile is 35 mph; 0.43 mile is 30 mph; and the final 0.89 mile is 25 mph.
Revisiting the limits
What would it take to change those speed limits? Huntley said the process would start with a request to the Transportation and Parking Commission for a speed study. Using traffic counters and radar guns, the city would monitor a week’s worth of vehicles in that section of Route 66. Officials would analyze the results to arrive at an optimal speed limit, and submit their recommendation to the state DOT for approval or denial. The process generally takes about nine months, Huntley said.
Dana Roscoe, principal planner with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, says that the issue of raising speed limits comes up “very infrequently. Usually it’s the other way around. Usually communities are saying how do we get the speed limit reduced? That’s where the 85 percent works to their disadvantage.”
Route 66 in Northampton demonstrates the flip side of that. Using the 85th percentile standard, highway experts say, would almost certainly make for a higher speed limit.
LaBarge remains firm in her opposition. “No way. There will be a huge outcry. This is the speed limit. The state has put that on there.”
There have been too many accidents over the years on 66, LaBarge says. “I think we’ve seen enough on this road.”
Meanwhile, the tailgating continues. A few nights ago yet another driver pulled out and passed me in the 25 mph zone — on the curve.
Capt. Scott Savino of the Northampton Police Department offers this advice to a driver who’s being dogged by someone who wants to go faster than the posted limit.
“Continue to drive the speed limit and if need be, signal and pull to the right and let the tailgating vehicle pass. Don’t speed up, brake hard, or engage with the other driver and have it turn into a road rage incident. Record the license plate number and contact the PD so it can be documented.”
But that’s not always so easy.
Earlier this fall, in a passing incident so aggressive that I thought it qualified as “driving to endanger,” I was ready to report the vehicle to police.
But I couldn’t, for two reasons.
The Prius’ license plate was obscured by a bicycle carrier.
And on top of that, the car had sped by so quickly I couldn’t have spotted the plate number anyway.