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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, January 26, 2002

Major change unlikely for speed limits

 •  Drivers demanded new limits in 1936
 •  Changes sought in traffic van program
 •  Answers to your questions about traffic cams

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

A review of state speed limits called for by angry motorists and legislators is unlikely to produce any wholesale changes, engineers and government officials say.

Yes, Hawai'i highways are built for higher speeds, the engineers say. But the speed limits are determined by many other factors, including the lay of the land, surrounding neighborhoods and public opinion, they say.

"Basically highways are designed for the best possible conditions, but speed limits are set to a much lower standard," said Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawai'i associate professor of civil engineering. Officials set speed limits to the safety needs of a city bus with standing passengers, not a private car, he said.

Critics argue that it's time to bring highway speed limits, which basically haven't changed since 1935, up to date. Improvements in auto technology as well as driver education make it possible to let most vehicles travel safely at higher speeds, they say.

The issue came to the forefront in recent weeks as residents reacted angrily to the rollout of a new state program using cameras and other high technology to cite and fine speeding motorists. Many have argued that strict enforcement of unreasonably low speed is a transparent attempt to raise revenue for the state and its private camera operator rather than improve safety.

"The safest speed is the prevailing speed of traffic," Minnesota traffic safety expert Nito Quitevis said. "You can change the speed limits to that standard and still be very safe."

Quitevis told state lawmakers that technological improvements in everything from roadway design to brakes to tires all contribute to an atmosphere of safer driving at higher speeds.

Several bills calling for a study and revision of speed limits have been introduced at the Legislature, including a Republican measure that concludes: "Existing speed limit signs do not necessarily reflect the most reasonable and prudent speed limit."

In response, Transportation Department officials said late this week that they have already begun a review of speed limits on state highways, which are the lowest in the country.

Private engineers and government officials think any changes will be limited to very specific areas and situations.

"There may be isolated incidents where they could be changed, but in most cases speed limits already are appropriate," said Julian Ng, a civil engineer and traffic consultant. "There aren't that many places where change is needed."

Ng and others said many factors outside of a driver's control are best used to determine the limits.

"How wide is the road? The shoulder? Is the road straight, curvy, flat, hilly? Is it a business district, residential, urban, rural? Are there intersections, driveways, traffic signals, stop signs? All of that goes into the equation," said Transportation Department spokeswoman Marilyn Kali.

Kali noted that when the state widened Kalaniana'ole Highway from four to six lanes several years ago, many drivers expected the 35-mph speed limit in East Honolulu to be raised.

"But other than the road, nothing has changed," she said. "There are still the same driveways, the same slope, the same shopping centers, the same schools, the same sight lines. Nothing changed that would cause us to raise the speed limits."

The push for higher highway speed limits has accelerated on the Mainland in recent years, and Hawai'i is the only state that still has any 45-mph highway speed limits. Several motorist organizations say raising the speed limit does not significantly affect safety, and at least one Federal Highway Administration study agrees.

"Raising the posted speed limits did not increase speeds or accidents," said the study's authors who collected data at 100 sites in 22 states where speed limits had recently been changed. "Accidents at the 41 experimental sites where speed limits were raised decreased by 6.7 percent."

Lowering speed limits resulted in a slight increase in accidents, the study said.

In another study, the California Highway Patrol found that speed-related fatal accidents dropped nearly 14 percent in the first year after the state raised freeway speed limits to 65 mph.

Local engineers say such results can't automatically be transferred to Hawai'i.

"Many places on the Mainland don't compare," Ng said. "They don't have the same kind of alignment, the tight curves, the up-and-down hilly areas, the bridges and the stream crossings we do. Our sight lines are more limited."

Others say Hawai'i already has de facto higher speed limits — or did until the cameras came along.

"They'll never admit it, but police already give speeders a leeway," said retired Honolulu police Maj. Gordon Moore. "When I was working we never gave anybody a ticket for going less than 10 miles per hour over the limit. Police can't say so, but they know the speed limits are a little low."

Prevedouros agreed that technological improvements, including better brakes, tires and air-

bags, have made driving safer in recent years, but said engineers and government officials still have to take a conservative, cautious approach to setting speed limits, especially since most drivers have no training in crash avoidance or the capabilities of their vehicle.

"The limits have to be set for the most marginal conditions, not the best ones," he said. Setting different speed limits for different vehicles or conditions would be a logistical nightmare, he said.

Tracy Ryan, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party in Hawai'i, has an answer for that. The party, which has been vocal in its opposition to traffic cameras since the idea was first raised here in 1997, thinks drivers are still the best ones to decide what a safe speed is.

"The basic underpinning of our speeding law is that you're allowed to drive safely and prudently, what ever the speed," he said. "Speed limit signs should be for education purposes only."