TRANSPORTATION

Is it time for NJ to rethink the way it sets speed limits?

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Many drivers treat posted speed limits more like suggestions than laws. Try driving the limit for about a mile in the Garden State Parkway’s hammer lane and you’ll constantly get passed.

“On the Garden State Parkway, I do around 70, 72 just to keep up,” said Nino Russo from Lincroft. “I get passed, sure. All the time.”

But should speed limits be changed to reflect how fast 85 percent of motorists actually drive?

“Probably a good thing because most people are speeding already,” said Woodbridge resident Bill Klein.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Wallington resident Dawn Castro. “People are reckless as it is.”

“You look at the speeds that people naturally drive, and you take the speed at or below which 85 percent of people are driving, set your speed limit there,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon.

O’Scanlon’s introduced a bill to do precisely that. It’s a traffic engineering standard.

“You’ll get the greatest amount of compliance, the least amount of passing maneuvers and the greatest amount of safety,” he said.

O’Scanlon’s bill applies only to so-called limited access highways, like the Turnpike and Parkway. He pointed to a 36-month study by the New Jersey Department of Transportation that showed when New Jersey raised the speed limit from 55 to 65 mph back in 1997, the reported number of accidents rose 27 percent in 65 mph zones. But, accidents also went up 30 percent in comparable 55 mph zones. The study concluded, “… NJDOT did not find that the increase in accidents was directly caused by the increase in the speed limit.”

The key, one engineer explains, is uniformity.

“If everybody’s going the same speed, there’s not a lot of lane-changing and there’s not a lot of speed differential and it creates a safer situation,” said Doug Bartlett, project manager at MBO Engineering LLC.

Critics, like Janna Chernetz from Tri-State Transportation, claim today’s drivers face multiple distractions from phones and in-car apps. She says New Jersey traffic fatalities are rising — up 11 percent from 2015 to 2017.

“What kinds of crashes are people getting into? When you increase the speed limit, you are now decreasing the reaction time for somebody. And where we’re seeing increased crashes due to distracted driving, that reaction time is limited the faster someone is driving,” Chernetz said.

Chernetz also argues that Jersey’s a congested, corridor state, different from western states where you can legally drive 80.

“We’re a drive-through state. We have ports. There’s a lot of commerce. There’s a lot of trucks on the roadway. That is an added danger. You can change speed laws, but you can’t change the laws of physics,” said Chernetz.

So what are the bill’s chances? O’Scanlon introduced similar measures in 2013 and 2016. Both of those bills went nowhere fast.