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Editorial: Right speeds for Route 66

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A speed of 25 mph may be the safe and proper posted limit for sections of Route 66 in Northampton. Then again, that speed on wide and straight sections of the state highway rebuilt in 2008 may be causing more problems than it is solving.

The drivers most likely to obey the limit are those who learned through their wallets, after receiving speeding tickets. They know they’re in the right, even if it bothers them to be poking along. But other travelers can think the drivers in front of them, slowing the flow for a growing line of cars, are dawdling dunderheads. And that is a dangerous split in driver emotions.

People who travel Route 66 regularly have likely witnessed the road rage, the gunning of engines to pass and the stress this all adds to everyone’s daily commute.

If enough people come forward to flag Route 66’s patchwork of posted speeds as worthy of reconsideration, the city’s Parking and Transportation Commission would to conduct a weeklong study using radar guns and traffic counters.

It would be unusual for people to press to raise speed limits, since most often neighborhoods want to see them cut. But this is a special case.

As we reported Monday, the question of a study came up as the road reconstruction was wrapping up after years of delays. Northampton’s DPW chief, Ned Huntley, says he told residents involved with the project that a study would likely find that speeds can be safely increased on the two sections of Route 66 — nearly two miles in all — where the limit is now 25 mph. Over the course of another mile or so, in three separate sections, the limit is 30 mph.

Their response to the idea of a traffic study? No thanks. As a result, speed limits set to fit the needs of a curving, narrow road that no longer exists remained in place.

That strikes us as a little selfish. What’s allowed on our public ways should be governed by science and transportation practices, not by local preferences. Huntley notes that the state designed the road to be safe for travel at 35 mph, and even 50 mph. Interestingly, it is the “crowd” that helps determine which speeds are safe. After monitoring vehicles on Route 66, a study would identify the speed that 85 percent of drivers use when traveling a road. That so-called “85 percentile” is the national standard for gauging safe speeds.

A city police captain offers this advice to law-abiding motorists being tail-gated by impatient drivers: pull over and try to note a license plate number. We see that as far more hazardous than a moderate increase in allowed speeds.

We hope the city runs the study and adopts its findings. Then let’s all keep our eyes on the road and our heads out of the sand.

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