blank.gif (51 bytes) Does Nevada Really
Need a Highway patrol?

by Chad Dornsife

he question in the headline no doubt will strike many readers as frivolous. But to those readers I would ask one key question: "Do you actually know how the Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) spends nine-tenths of its time, manpower and resources?"

Contrary to public impression, the NHP is no longer primarily a public safety organization. Despite the badges, paramilitary structure, all the cool toys and the (hopefully) freshly pressed uniforms—this organization, like highway patrols in most Western states these days, is almost entirely a revenue-raising operation.

Further, because it is an institution dedicated to enforcing lower-than-appropriate speed limits—limits that make the state’s highways fertile grounds for writing tickets and collecting fines—Nevada’s highway patrol, working hand in glove with the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), actually is a force making state highways less safe!

Fighting words? Irresponsible accusations?

If you doubt these assertions—and you should, if you haven’t spent some time looking into this topic—I invite you to discover the actual consensus that exists among traffic engineers around the world on the subject of speed’s relation to safety. It has long been a nationally recognized engineering principle that the safest speed for almost any stretch of highway is the speed that the great majority of drivers—85 to 90 percent—freely choose.

Consider, for example, Federal Highway Administra-tion Report No. FHWA/RD-85/096:

Based on the best available evidence, the speed limit should be set at the speed driven by 85 to 90 percent of the free-moving vehicles rounded up to the next 5 mph increment. This method results in speed limits that are not only acceptable to a majority of the motorists, but also fall within the speed range where accident risk is lowest. Allowing a 5 mph tolerance, enforcement would be targeted at drivers who are clearly at risk.
No other factors need to be considered since they are reflected in the drivers’ speed choice. If there are unusual hazards not readily apparent to drivers, then a warning sign could be installed giving the nature of the hazard and, if necessary, supplemented with a realistic advisory speed.

And this 1985 report was no aberration. In April, 1996 the agency, while sponsoring a Speed Limit Management Workshop at the University of Nevada, Reno, reaffirmed the same position.

Nor is the Federal Highway Administration alone. Here are the guidelines promulgated by the Institute Of Transportation Engineers (ITE):

… the overriding basis (from a safety perspective) for speed zoning should be that the creation of the zone, and the speed limit posted, result in an increase in the percentage of motorists driving at or near the 85th percentile speed.

The basis of these guidelines are studies upon studies, going back decades. The consensus behind the principle is so strong among engineers that it is embodied both in federal law and the traffic laws of every state in the nation. Chapter 8-13 of the California State Traffic Manual, is a good example:

Speed limits established on the basis of the 85th percentile conform to the consensus of those who drive highways as to what speed is reasonable and prudent, and are not dependent on the judgment of one or a few.
Further studies have shown that establishing a speed limit at less than the 85th percentile (Critical Speed) generally results in an increase in accident rates.

These principles have been basic to the speed zoning techniques used by traffic engineers for the last 60 years. That was noted some 20 years ago in a speech famous within the profession by Mathew C. Sielski, honored by the ITE for lifetime achievement:

One of the most important responsibilities of traffic engineers is the establishment of proper and realistic speed limits. Our profession has long recognized that most citizens will behave in a reasonable manner as they go about their daily activities. Thus, traffic laws that are based upon behavior of reasonable motorists are found to be successful. Laws that arbitrarily restrict the majority of motorists encourage wholesale violations, lack of public support, and usually fail to bring about desirable changes in driving behavior. This is especially true of speed limits.

Sielski went on to also note, however, that "an emotionally aroused public will reject these fundamentals and will rely on more comfortable and widely held misconceptions," such as:

Speed limit signs will slow the speed of traffic.

Speed limit signs will decrease accidents and increase safety.

Raising a posted speed limit will cause an increase in the speed of traffic.

Any posted speed limit must be safer than an unposted speed limit, regardless of the prevailing traffic and roadway conditions.

"Before-and-after studies have proven conclusively that these are definitely misconceptions," observed Sielski.

So why does the political establishment always talk and act as though this consensus of the engineers was nonexistent? It’s because from the viewpoint of revenue-hungry politicians all over the U.S.—and definitely here in Nevada— setting highway speed limits to the 85th percentile has one absolutely terrible drawback: there are no fines to speak of. The speed posted on the side of the road under this safer regime is the speed that the great majority of drivers already judge most appropriate. Thus there are far fewer infractions of the limit and far fewer easy targets for speeding tickets.

And that is why, here in Nevada, the NHP and NDOT for years have collaborated to set nearly every speed limit possible lower than the optimum identified by NDOT engineers’ traffic surveys.

It’s a major scandal, almost completely ignored by Nevada’s news media. The hunger of judges and bureaucrats for speeding-ticket revenues is being allowed to trump your safety. Further, it is an open secret among traffic engineers that the NDOT routinely and explicitly violates both federal and state laws. That’s because most highways in Nevada have been posted contrary to the traffic engineering studies that both federal and state law require.

More crazy charges? Consider: In exchange for federal highway moneys, Nevada adopted federal standards regulating how those moneys can be used. Although any state’s legislators are free to set for their state any maximum speed limits they wish, they are not free to do so on federally funded roads, where they’ve agreed to follow federal standards.

This last principle is not only embodied in Title 23 of the U.S. Code and Section 655.603 of the Code of Federal Regulations, but also in two separate sections of Nevada state law: NRS 484.781 and NRS 484.369.

The first Nevada section mandates the state’s adoption of a manual for a uniform system of traffic-control devices that will conform to the federally mandated national traffic engineering standards. The second NRS section requires that posted speed zones in the state be established only after appropriate traffic engineering studies have been conducted "to determine the need therefor." This is one of those crucial guidelines included by national traffic engineering groups in their professional standards. Yet the reality is that there are no studies for most of the state highways, and even what data NDOT does have does not support the speed limits the department’s brass have routinely assigned to the state’s roads.

Nevertheless, today the NHP and NDOT actively and routinely collaborate to block a safer driving regime in Nevada. During the 1995 session of the Nevada Legislature, the transportation committees of both the Senate and Assembly passed legislation to reintroduce such a regime, only to find themselves thwarted in the last days of the session by a NHP subterfuge.

At the time, legislation had been moving through the U.S. Congress to repeal the mandates behind the 55 mph national speed limit—legislation that did become the new law. The bill passed in Nevada’s transportation committees foresaw such a repeal and included a provision that, in such an event, would have restored the approach to speed regulation that the state had followed 20 years ago, before Congress preempted Nevada’s authority.

Many new Nevadans don’t realize this, but before the mid-1970s, there was no numerical speed limit on most of the state’s rural highways. Even now, if you consult the relevant chapter of Nevada law—NRS 484—you’ll see traces of the era when Nevada, like Montana still today, largely left determination of appropriate speed up to the good judgment of its citizens:

NRS 484.361 Basic rule. It is unlawful for any person to drive or operate a vehicle of any kind or character at:

  1. A rate of speed greater than is reasonable or proper, having due regard for the traffic, surface and width of the highway, the weather and other highway conditions.
  2. Such a rate of speed as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person.
  3. A rate of speed greater than that posted by a public authority for the particular portion of highway being traversed.

What happened to deprive Nevada drivers of this larger degree of autonomy? Two things: The nationalization of speed limits during a Congressional panic over the "energy crisis" of the mid-‘70s Arab oil embargo, and then the resulting transformation of Nevada’s statewide traffic control system during the ensuing 20 years. From one primarily focused on safety, the system has devolved to one primarily fixated on revenue-raising—and safety concerns are increasingly only deployed as a fig leaf.

Nationalization of speed limits occurred when the federal 55 mph speed legislation was passed by Congress and signed into law by Richard Nixon. But like most Nanny State codes, virtually no one but the finger-wagging types behind the law really believed in it. The result was that, rather than producing a nation of conscientiously slow drivers, the new law simply turned most drivers technically into law-breakers. In terms of sound public policy and effective traffic administration the law was clearly a massive failure. But as a way to turn America’s highway system into a continent-sized speed trap, it was an unmitigated success. Here in Nevada NHP administrators over the last quarter-century, riding the vehicle of speed enforcement, have been able to increase their annual budgets well over 1200 percent. Before the 55 mph limit, the agency’s annual budget was around $3 million. Today it is over $38 million.

Today after almost a quarter century, major elements of important Nevada institutions—the traffic courts, lawmakers, NDOT and the NHP—have grown addicted to the financial spoils that can be available when professional traffic engineering standards are sold out.

Breaking that addiction, it is clear, will be difficult. NJ

Next Month: Part II.

Chad Dornsife is a member of the National Motorists Association and a long-time activist on highway safety issues. He lives in Zephyr Cove.


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