koehler road, vadnais heights, mn

A Wink And A Nod—A Safer Environment, Not Just A Safe Speed

Part I – A Wink And A Nod—Teaching Our Kids To Be Criminals

Part II – A Wink And A Nod—Beliefs, Laws, And Turning Right On Red

If people don’t obey laws (Part I), but only their beliefs (Part II), should we even have laws?

Of course we should. Especially if we can get back to where people believe in our system of laws. However, we also need to be cognizant of the consequences of each law we pass and insure that the actual, not just hoped for, benefits of the law are worth all of the varying consequences and that the law is reasonably enforceable.

A Safer Environment

Traffic engineering folk, law enforcement, and elected officials do their analyses, determine that the safest speed limit for a section of 35E is 60 mph, and the signs go up.

And, that’d be fine if people obeyed that speed limit. But they often don’t.

While everyone driving 60 may be the ideal speed on a particular stretch of motorway to balance safety and getting people where they want to go expeditiously and efficiently, we need to also consider reality—how many people will actually obey that speed. Everyone driving about 70 may be much safer than half driving 60 and the other half driving 70 or 80.

Contrary to popular belief, the higher speed limit may create a safer overall environment, instead of just attempt to establish a safe speed. Being realistic instead of idealistic, we may get a better end result[1].  More importantly, we will now have a motorway full of law-abiders rather than creating a bunch of morning-commute criminals.

On the other hand, sometimes we need to work on the belief side of the equation.

A county stroad that I drive often has a posted speed limit of 35 mph. However, most people drive about 45 mph. Or faster. It’s a long straight road with very smooth 11’ wide lanes and 2-3’ wide shoulders. It actually seems slow going 45 on it. This is a quite different situation though. This is not a motorway intended primarily for cars and getting people where they are going as quickly and safely as possible, but a residential street (technically a ‘collector’). It has other purposes than just cars.

koehler road, vadnais heights, mn

If you design it like a high speed county road, don’t be surprised if people drive on it like a high speed county road.

It has homes all along both sides. It has kids wanting to walk or ride their bicycles to friends houses. It has residents out gardening, mowing their grass, cooking out, or just visiting on their front porch.

Someone driving 10 mph faster here has a much greater impact and on many more people. They negatively impact all of these other people who live, walk, or ride bicycles on this street. The driver may not realize it as they drive along, but that’s reality. The faster they drive the more dangerous it is for people walking or bicycling along the road, the more noise there is that interrupts conversations, and the combination of noise and cars whizzing by at high speed makes for an overall unpleasant neighborhood.

When I talk with people in local cafe’s about this, they believe that these speed limits are for the safety of ‘cars’. Only about 1 in 7 mentions the safety of pedestrians or people riding bicycles and none have ever mentioned the noise or comfort impact on neighborhoods. About half make an exasperated comment along the lines of ‘who knows’.

For several years I didn’t think much about that myself. I don’t necessarily like being in my car,  I just want to get where I’m going. Everything about this road told me, and most others apparently, to drive 45 or 50 mph[2].

Here though, I think that it’s important to change people’s beliefs rather than change the law.

There are three critical differences between this county road and our motorway example; the benefits of the law outweigh the negative consequences and costs of enforcement, the law has a solid foundation upon which people can base their beliefs, and it is relatively enforceable.

For most people, it’s not that they don’t believe the speed limit should be this low (or lower), but that they simply haven’t thought about the reasons for it. If people know the reason, know the negative impact on so many others, they’ll understand (most anyway) and they’ll believe in driving slower on this road (though narrower lanes and other design elements might help). And, if people believe in it, if they understand the reason for it, they’ll mostly obey it which will make enforcement fairly simple.

So there we have two examples, one where a law should perhaps be reconsidered, another where we may need to do a bit of education.

Quite importantly, we’ve also begun to establish a very critical distinction between a motorway designed exclusively for motor vehicles, and other roadways intended for a variety of users. Another post for another time.

There are a number of laws; regulatory, administrative, and vice, that provide less benefit than they do harm. Many of these have served primarily to just make a mockery of our system of laws and justice. We’ve attempted to cast too wide of a net and this has weakened our core. And this extends to the entire public realm. I often wonder what role this issue has played in our schools with the increase in cyber-bullying and the number of girls who’ve found themselves on the wrong end of sextortion.

A Final Thought

Think about pulling up to that new No-Turn-On-Red sign at the intersection of Lexington and County Rd F in Shoreview.

Growing up the police were people who stopped your mom for speeding and your dad for rolling a stop sign. As a kid riding your bike through those stop signs in Vadnais Heights, you learned the same lesson that Charles Marhon did, that sometimes, being law abiding seems kind of stupid, makes you feel like a bit of a chump, and is a PITA. Later, in high school and college you frequently broke underage drinking laws (and once almost got caught by the cops, but got away). You’ve probably also broken a vice law or few. Today, as most days, you’ve already broken the law several times; driving 75 mph up 35E and rolling, OK, blowing, a couple of stop signs at isolated T-intersections. No-Turn-On-Red? Really? Like you have time to sit twiddling your thumbs for 32 seconds?

Or this. You’ve always viewed police as after the bad guys. You’ve never had any negative interactions with them. You drank a bit in high school (usually with your parents) and college (too much on occasion, lesson learned). This morning you drove 72 mph up 35E and across 694, a bit below the 75 mph speed limit. You like the roundabouts that have been installed at many intersections. The sign says No-Turn-On-Red. You’ve never broken a law before. You don’t even consider starting now so you stop and wait until the light changes and then, because of the design of the intersection (stop lines set back, etc.), you check for any pedestrians or bicyclists and then proceed.

Your eight-year-old daughter rides through this intersection every day on her way to and from school. Which of these drivers do you want approaching that intersection on Lexington?


[1] This is an example only. There may be other factors that really scream for a 60 mph speed limit. HOWEVER, if many people are already driving 70 mph, are those factors accurate?  What about the noise that the higher speed makes? Or do we already have that noise and no setting of speed limits will change that?

[2] Speeding became a worse problem on this road about two years ago when they repaved it and widened the vehicle lanes.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN