LB 1009 Testimony

Posted on February 6, 2018 · Posted in General

Here’s a copy of the testimony given by NeBA Executive Director Julie Harris at the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee meeting on February 6, 2018:

Chairman Friesen and members of the Committee:

My name is Julie Harris and I’m the Executive Director of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance.  

It should come as no surprise to you that we oppose the majority of the language in LB 1009.  We have no issue with the new classification for Super Two highways. We do, however, stand strongly opposed to increasing speed limits on our state highways, as these are the roads that people on bikes enjoy riding.  

In the bigger picture, however, as an organization that cares about transportation policy, our concerns are with the process.  Creating effective transportation policy requires thoughtful consideration and best practice research, and there are too many red flags here for our comfort level.

Our main concern is that raising speed limits on state highways is not consistent with the stated goals that the Nebraska Department of Transportation established in 2017 for the updated “Towards Zero Deaths” plan.  This is a plan each state is required to develop. The introduction of the plan states that it “is data-driven, strategic and targeted, and designed to make significant progress towards Nebraska’s goal of slashing fatal and serious injury crashes.”  

The document is quite detailed, and the committee that worked on the plan established the major areas which, if addressed, have the most chance of getting Nebraska towards zero deaths on our roads.  Based on the research done on fatal crashes in Nebraska, priorities established include behavior based areas like seat belt use, and alcohol impairment. However, the committee also identified speed-related crashes as a priority emphasis area.  This makes sense: Speed increases the likelihood of serious and fatal crash involvement and Speed increases the injury severity of a crash.

So, knowing that NDOT has established goals to move towards zero deaths and we know that higher speeds cause more crashes, more injuries and deaths, why on earth would we RAISE speed limits?

The statement of intent that has been filed say that the bill is “to align Nebraska’s speed limits with the on-the-ground driving conditions in accordance with engineering and traffic standards, such as the 85th Percentile Principle as recommended by the Federal Highway Administration and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” so I’ll focus on that.

This notion of using the 85th percentile to set speed limits is a method that is commonly used, but it is based on research that is decades old. In short, engineers measure how fast people drive on a road and then set the limit at the 85th percentile of the speed observed.  Emerging research shows that this is not the best method. In fact, a comprehensive report released 7 months ago from the National Transportation Safety Board titled “Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles” demonstrates significant flaws in the 85th percentile methodology, and flaws in the data gathered on speeding in the first place, citing how crashes involving speeding are reported (or not reported) in the first place.  

Among the findings:

  • …there is not strong evidence that, within a given traffic flow, the 85th percentile speed equates to the speed with the lowest crash involvement rate on all road types.
  •  Raising the speed limit to match the 85th percentile speed may lead to higher operating speeds, and hence a higher 85th percentile speed. This generates an undesirable cycle of speed escalation on other roads, leading to reduced safety. As a 2016 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) report stated, “The 85th percentile speed is not a stationary point. It is, rather, a moving target that increases when speed limits are raised.”

This “spillover effect of undesirable speed escalation and reduced safety” gets us back to our concern about the safety of the most vulnerable users of our roads: road construction workers, and people biking and walking.

No amount of political talking points about efficiency, customer focus and economic growth will create the logic that supports the idea that speed limits should be raised.  We should go back to the drawing board and do more homework, using the most up to date, data-driven, strategic approach touted in the Towards Zero Deaths plan before making statutory changes that impact the safety of the users of our roads.