EDITORIAL: How fast do you want to drive?

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT the state Department of Transportation would make decisions based on how people vote. It’s true. The DOT agency takes note of how we vote with our feet, specifically, our right foot, the one that presses the gas pedal.

Last year the towns of Chatham, Ghent and Kinderhook requested that the DOT consider lowering the speed limit on state Route 203 between the Villages of Chatham and Valatie. The speed limit is 55 mph along that stretch but local residents believe too many people drive a lot faster.

It seems reasonable that people who travel this road would have a clear idea about how fast traffic is moving, Just count the number of times you yell, “Slow Down, you Moron!” But exactly how fast are the morons going and how many speeding scofflaws does it take convince the DOT to reduce the speed limit enough so people don’t have to fear for their lives as they travel between the villages?

The DOT has a numerical target for determining speed limits. It’s 85. That’s not a speed, it’s a percentile. State engineers measure the speed at which we drive. Then they put those speeds on a graph and draw a line at the 85% mark. At or below that speed is how fast 85% of drivers on Route 203 actually travel.

Above that speed are the remaining 15%. Some of this speedster elite may be first responders who have a reason to drive faster than the rest of us. The remainder are probably type-AAA personalities, clueless teens, substance abusers and anybody stupid enough to text while driving.

The DOT sampled speeds at six different sites along the roughly five-mile section of the road where the towns asked for a lower limit. The measurements showed that 85% of people drive 52 mph or less. So most drivers are already adjusting their speed to something below the posted 55 mph limit.

That sounds like a no brainer. If most drivers already travel more slowly, why wouldn’t the DOT agree to the towns’ call to make it official and set the speed at 50 or 45 mph? It’s likely a majority of drivers do that now.

The DOT disagrees and its reason given in a letter to the towns last month says that the problem with lowering speed limits is that “unrealistic speed limits do not invite voluntary compliance, do not reflect the behavior of the majority and result in the unlawful behavior of the majority.”

Translation: You naughty drivers in Columbia County. DOT knows your kind. You can’t be trusted with lower speed limits. You’ll just break the law the first chance you get.

Do the highway nerds know us better than we know ourselves? After all, they did their homework. As part of their study of this one short section of Route 203 they looked at all 37 reported accidents from the beginning of 2013 until the end of 2015, a number that doesn’t include collisions with deer (although you’d think that a few of those deer might have been avoided at lower speeds). The DOT says that in 10 of the accidents “unsafe speed was an apparent contributing factor” and that’s not enough destruction to determine a pattern.

As a technical matter that’s no doubt correct. As a political proposition, the response rings true as well. It’s a state highway and state agencies don’t get credit for slowing traffic; the faster voters can travel the happier they’ll be. It’s hard to deny.

But the elected representatives of three towns have told the state that their constituents don’t value speed over safety on this road and the public has demonstrated that by not driving over the limit. Instead, most of us go more slowly than the law requires. We do it not as an act of protest but as a matter of self preservation.

The DOT has collected the necessary data to reach a conclusion that it can defend as a technical matter. But the agency’s formula excludes variables like quality of life, community standards and the principles of democratic self-government.

It may surprise the DOT to learn that “the behavior of the majority” is not always a problem. In this case it might be the solution. The DOT’s rejection is a call to the three towns to demand that state lawmakers draft legislation that forces the agency to address community concerns when lower speed limits are requested. The goal should be safety first, then speed.

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