Gravel road speed limit still simmers

"If you don't think things have changed on Washington Road, come up and see me," said resident Carl Richardson.

Carl Richardson has lived on gravel Washington Road in Rochester for 36 years. Despite the fact that the speed limit is now 55, he says people are still speeding. Two weeks ago, he confronted a speeding driver, who turned out to be an off-duty deputy.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry; I thought I was going the speed limit,’” Richardson said.

The question of who should get to set speed limits on gravel roads brought residents, elected officials and traffic-safety experts together June 21 at Rochester Hills City Hall.

Hills Councilman Adam Kochenderfer called the meeting to hear residents’ concerns about a 2006 state law that makes 55 miles per hour the prima facie speed limit, unless posted otherwise. The law also put the Michigan State Police in the driver’s seat when it comes to approving speed limits lower than those specified in the law.

Residents on several of Rochester Hills’ major gravel roads, primarily Dutton and Washington, watched in horror in 2006 as their 25 mph signs were removed. Six years later, they still want them back.

Oakland County’s contingent in Lansing has heard them. Reps. Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake), Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake) and Brad Jacobson (R-Oxford) have introduced a bill to return speeds to what was posted before the law changed. House Bill 4037 would also retain the lower speed limits unless a municipality asks the Road Commission for Oakland County for a change and a study is conducted. The bill was introduced in January and referred to the House Transportation Committee.

Kochenderfer said he favors giving power back to municipalities, and he was unconvinced by a presentation by state police Lt. Gary Megge, who said there has been no increase in accidents since the law changed.

“This is about public safety. This is an issue that trumps all the others,” Kochenderfer said. The 55 mph speed limit “may work in a lot of communities … but the one-size-fits-all doesn’t work for Rochester Hills.”

Residents agreed. They wondered why it makes sense to have 25 mph on paved residential roads, and 55 on gravel residential roads; why a five-lane road like Walton is 40 mph, while narrow, hilly portions on Dutton are 55.

“Everyone knows if you go down Rochester Road in downtown Rochester, you had better go 25,” a Dutton road resident said. “If 25 mph is enforced on those dirt roads like it is on Rochester, we won’t have that problem.”

Megge, an 18-year trooper and recognized expert in traffic safety, said the science behind speed limits is “counterintuitive.” He said when speed limits are set right, travel speeds and accidents go down “because it’s a safe and reasonable speed.” If they’re set too low, “we have a very low compliance rate.”

“We all take the driving environment … into consideration and adjust our speed,” he said. “So the speed limit sign has almost no effect.”

Megge said a proper speed limit should be based solely on engineering. He said studies have shown that a higher speed limit does not mean higher travel speeds, and that accident numbers have gone down since the law changed.

Residents were skeptical, and so were some officials who attended the meeting. “I very much understand the state police position; I respectfully disagree,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. “Local control works. … They have the ability to make a decision, and I think that’s appropriate.”

State Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) said he hopes a compromise can be reached. “There is a lot of pushback” to the current proposal, he said. “The state police are not happy … which makes it hard to get something through.”

McMillin said he is working on an approach that would allow the local municipality and the road commission, if they agree, to lower a speed limit. Currently the state police also have to agree.

Megge said the MSP is working with Kowall to try to find a compromise. “We’re not out of the game; we’re still working on it,” he said.

For most residents, the baffling question was why the MSP would be against local control in Oakland County, where they don’t patrol most of the roads.

“I have seen cars airborne,” said Kathy Shelton. “What are we waiting for? We don’t want a memorial on our street.”

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