Texas Toll Roads Caught Ignoring Safety Standards
September 22, 2007
By DAVID SCHECHTER
Before you get a speeding ticket, someone has to set a speed limit.
That's the government's job and it's required to follow stringent standards when setting speed limits.
But News 8 Investigates has learned those standards are not followed on large stretches of the Dallas North Tollway and the Bush Turnpike.
Experts say that calls into question the validity of speeding tickets.
Someone is clocking your speeds out there and it's not the police.
It's an engineer, in this case, a consultant working for the Texas Department of Transportation.
He's doing a speed study.
It's a test calculating the actual speeds people travel when traffic is light and it's required by state law.
And the law says you have to do one before you set a speed limit. Why?
"Statistics show that 85 percent of the people drive at a prudent and reasonable speed. If you set a speed limit lower than that, you're actually punishing prudent and reasonable drivers," said Kelly Selman, TxDOT director of transportation.
TxDOT controls most of our highways like 35 and 75.
How about the North Texas Tollway Authority?
The NTTA operates the North Dallas Tollway and the Bush Turnpike.
It turns out the agency has rejected some speed study results that show speeds could actually be increased in some places.
And News 8 has learned on some stretches of the tollway there are no speed studies at all.
From downtown to 635, on the tollway, the speed limit is 55 mph.
In the most recent speed study, a consultant concluded traffic naturally flows at around 72 mph, not 55.
Many motorists seem to know that already.
"It's a little too slow," said one motorist.
"I think it should be closer to 65. That would be nice," said another.
The consultants report suggested NTTA could increase speeds to 60 mph or greater.
To do that, it recommended evaluating traffic accident data, performing additional speed analysis and evaluating roadway materials.
But NTTA never followed up on any of them.
Mark Bouma is NTTA's Director of Engineering - he says the tollway was not engineered to safely carry higher speeds.
"NTTA wants to ensure that we provide a very safe facility for all our [vehicles] on the roadway," he said.
But government research shows setting the speed limit below the speed drivers actually travel doesn't make roads safer - and can even make them more dangerous.
"Based on looking at all the information that was available we felt that a safe and prudent speed was lower than just what the speed studies had shown," Bouma added.
Between 635 and Bush, on the tollway, is another story.
The speed limit here is 60.
But based on what?
"The speed was set based on certain facts," Bouma said.
"Speed study should be one of those aspects. We need to go back and research our files and find that information."
They never found it because they never did one, and they never did one on all the 30 plus miles of the Bush Turnpike, where the speed limit is 60 mph.
Texas law says NTTA "shall follow" state procedures when establishing speed zones.
That did not happen.
Attorney John Giofreddi's firm handles thousands of speeding tickets a year.
"They take short cuts, and you know, people get trampled in the short cuts. They always do. They always will," he said.
He says the absence of a speed study does not give you the right to speed but it would be grounds to fight a ticket at trial.
A costly option that few clients are interested in.
"99 out of 100 they just want to get out of the ticket and they want to spend as little money as possible to do so," Giofreddi added.
That means the larger question rarely gets asked.
But Bouma insists they are not setting people up to get speeding tickets.
"That is not the intent of setting the speed limit lower. The speed limits are set at the opinion of what is safe," he said.
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