10 Oct. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

Save a Life, Waste a Life

"Academic quarrels are so vicious because the stakes are so small"

That's a famous quotation I've seen attributed to Henry Kissinger, Wallace Sayre, Richard Neustadt, Laurence Peter, and others.  The quote also comes in various versions.  I've never heard of anyone fighting over the identity of the originator, presumably because they didn't want to prove its veracity.

This is about a controversy so small that although I know which side I'm on, I can't bring myself to share any righteous indignation with you.  It has to do with speed limits, a subject about which I know a little, which is to say, not a lot, but not nothing, either.  One of the things I do know:  One of the best ways to determine what a speed limit should be is to see what speed people actually drive on a road.  Kinnelon Road, on which I drive every day, had a speed limit of 50 mph.  I never questioned this because its two lanes are well paved, not twisty-turny, and have broad shoulders.  When I drive at 50 mph, I'm comfortable.  Presumably pretty much everyone feels that way because when I'm behind someone else, he's usually going 50 mph, too.  In other words, regardless of the legal "speed limit," 50 mph is an appropriate speed for the road.

A few months ago there was a tragic accident.  As written in the Star-Ledger in an article by Kristen Alloway,

The speed change comes about five months after two teenage girls were struck by a car and killed while they were walking along Kinnelon Road, just south of the high school.

Speed was not a factor in the accident; the driver faces charges of drunken driving, vehicular homicide and reckless driving.

The community mourned for many days, and there was for a while a "flower section" of Kinnelon Road.  But "speed was not a factor."  Additional details of the accident include driving (slowly!) on the shoulder, and not just alcohol but serious drugs.  Immediately after the accident, however, there was a hue and cry for a lower speed limit.  (Hue and cry may be an exaggeration:  I saw a letter in a local news circular.)  At the time I had no sympathy for the person requesting the lower limit because it was clear that she had her own agenda.  Clearly, a lower speed limit wouldn't have altered the circumstances of the accident.  I remember saying at the time that it would never happen because speed limits are determined by engineering studies.

So much for my theory.  More from the article:

After two years of traffic and pedestrian studies along Kinnelon Road in Kinnelon, the speed limit on part of the street will be reduced from 50 mph to 40 mph beginning tomorrow.

The new speed limit along the main borough thoroughfare will be in place between Fayson Lake and Maple Lake roads. The speed also will be lowered to 25 mph in front of Kinnelon High School when children are present, according to borough police.

"We've been working on this for a while because of the heavy pedestrian traffic on the road -- a lot of walkers, a lot of runners, a lot of kids crossing to come to the library," Kinnelon Police Lt. John Schwartz said.

Morris County and the state Department of Transportation recently approved the change. To make their case, borough police officers studied pedestrian traffic and speeds along Kinnelon Road, which passes in front of the borough hall and library...

Borough police began investigating the speed limit reduction about two years ago, when there were concerns about high school students parking near the municipal building and crossing Kinnelon Road to get to school, Schwartz said. Students are now required to park at the school.

In other words, at least according to the article, they had already been looking into changing the limit when the accident occurred.  So Ms. Agenda got her way for the right reason instead of the wrong one.

Police have already begun to hear some complaints from motorists about the reduction, Schwartz said.

When the borough was studying the change, there was discussion among the Morris County freeholders that Kinnelon Road, which runs from Route 23 to Boonton Township, was a regional artery and its speed limit should be left as is.

Still, some residents are looking forward to the decrease.

"It's very easy to go extremely fast on that road. If the speed limit is 50, people naturally go 55, upwards of 60 mph," said borough resident Annie Kline, who often runs along Kinnelon Road. "I think it's going to make it safer."

Look at the quote:  "It's very easy to go extremely fast on that road."  True!  That's WHY the speed limit was 50!  If it isn't easy, it should be lower.  But never mind...

My take on this is that the Mothers Against Lots of Stuff won a small battle.  The reason I'm not unduly exercised is that the total length of the road in question is only a little over a mile.  If you consider the time and distance you would spend accelerating from 40, the new speed limit, to 50, the old one, and the concomitant deceleration before turning, you're only talking about a ten or fifteen second difference.  In fact, I'd be happy with the change if "they" would also spend a few bucks to make the traffic lights near the Route 23 end behave more sensibly.  That would return, on average, the wasted seconds.  OK, Mr. Them?  How about it?

But I can't let this go without an ironic observation.  I'm sure a few thousand people per day use Kinnelon Road and will be affected by this change.  Without knowing (or hanging out to count) the true quantity, I can't do more than guess, but I would think that if you multiply 15 seconds everyone will spend if the new limit isn't ignored by the number of people on the road, about one day per day of people time will be wasted.  One day per day eventually becomes one lifetime per lifetime.  So whether the new speed limit saves a life or not, willy-nilly it will throw one away.  On the other hand, if everyone continues to drive 50mph, then all that the speed limit change will have accomplished is to turn us into a town of scofflaws, without even hypothetically affecting safety.

Follow-up 18 November 2006

It's been about a month since the new speed limit was implemented.  The big flashing warning signs have been removed and all that remain are the small, discreet "SPEED LIMIT 40MPH" signs that replaced the "50MPH" signs.  Out of fear, civic duty, or indifference, everyone is driving at exactly 40MPH.  Just a bit of objective reportage.

Richard Factor

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