Rochester Police Chief Paul Magee addressed residents’ increasing concerns over speeding on certain Rochester roads by hosting a public forum the night of November 9 at Old Colony.
Most of those concerns, he said, he had observed on social media outlets like Facebook, with some people calling for measures such as a reduction in speed limits and increased enforcement. But there are some misconceptions amongst some residents about the process, Magee said, especially when it came to the Town’s authority in setting speed limits.
“A lot of people don’t understand that speed limits are based on federal limits,” said Magee to about a dozen residents. And oftentimes the intent of slowing vehicles with lower speed limits can backfire.
Magee thought it would be most helpful to give a bit of basic information about speed limits, starting with roads where speed limits aren’t posted. For a thickly settled district, the assigned speed limit is 30 mph. Outside that zone, 40 mph is acceptable, and on divided highways the rule of thumb is 50 mph. Gravel roads are generally not assigned a speed limit, he said, due to the conditions of the road that place physical limitations on speed.
“I could explain for eight hours on how they set speed limits, but the long and short of it,” Magee said, is that “professionals in the industry say [only] fifteen percent of motorists travel at an unreasonable speed.” Further clarifying that statement, Magee said roughly 80 percent of drivers drive at a reasonable speed.
“You’ll say, ‘I betcha it’s higher than that,’” Magee said, but data from a traffic study in town had come back that very day. “The complaint was about some pretty bad speeding, and we had a handful of bad violators.”
Officers in unmarked cruisers had for some time been collecting data on passing cars at 100 cars at a time. The top highest speeds are eliminated, creating an 85th percentile to analyze.
“When I get to that eighty-fifth percentile, that indicates the ideal speed limit for the street,” said Magee. The results indicated that the average driver in Rochester does travel at the speed limit, he said, adding, “It’s a pretty effective way to determine a speed limit.”
“That’s the rules, whether you like it or not,” said Magee. They aren’t his rules, he said, they are the federal standards. “Keep in mind,” he added, “when people want speed limits changed … that data has to be submitted to the State, approved by the Town, and then posted and enforced.”
And according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division, new posted speed limits alone don’t have a major effect on driver behavior, nor do they encourage drivers to slow down. In fact, studies have shown that arbitrarily lowering speed limits will only, at best, result in a difference of less than 2 mph within that 85th percentile.
After about 12 hours of collecting data on a section of Walnut Plain Road, Magee said in addition to the speed data, accident rate data is also part of the equation when proposing a speed limit reduction, “But it has to be a significant number of accidents.”
“Yes, I agree we do have to do something,” said Magee, “but you have to understand what we are able to do.” And we must be realistic, he emphasized, since police resources are limited.
Typically every day there are two patrol officers on duty at any time covering the roughly 40 square miles of Rochester.
“Know that I have two people on, and those people handle other day-to-day calls,” said Magee. But having said that, every cruiser that is out patrolling is equipped with forward and rear-facing radar, which is not the case in most towns. And while each cruiser is out driving that radar is running and enforcing speed limits.
The department also owns one radar trailer that depicts the speed of passing vehicles, but the problem with that, Magee said, is it cannot collect data. So if a resident complains about a specific uptick in speeding at a certain time and direction, the radar trailer cannot record the incident.
“We lack the equipment to track that,” Magee said. “Our device is so old that it doesn’t have that.” This is why the chief will request articles on the Annual Town Meeting Warrant for new technology, such as a portable radar sign that can collect data on vehicle speeds and calculate the average speed and an apparatus Magee called a “black box” that can be chained to a utility pole and inconspicuously collect data.
But the chief emphasized that after years of working in law enforcement, what he sees most often is not an actual speeding problem but rather residents’ perception of a speeding problem.
“You live there,” Magee said. “It’s emotional. You have kids, you worry. It’s hard for laypeople to accurately say what the actual speed is.”
Magee said that in 2016 there were 1,980 traffic stops for all types of violations, with 1,460 verbal warnings issued and 520 written citations – three of those to CDL licensed drivers.
Magee said only a small fraction of commercial truck drivers exceed the speed limit, although a truck travelling by an onlooker at the posted speed limit can appear much faster compared to a smaller vehicle.
“They’re loud and noisy, and to laypeople that noise and that ‘whoosh’ of air going by translates into ‘That guy’s speeding,’ even though they’re travelling at the same speed.”
It’s no secret, said the chief, that it is absolutely necessary to determine if speeding is in fact an issue in town, which is why acquiring more modern technology is vital. The price range for a radar sign and black box is about $3,500 to $4,000.
Speeding is an emotional thing. “It’s emotional when somebody speeds by your house.”
In the meantime, the chief acquainted residents with the official traffic complaint form that allows for detailed reporting like times of day and days of the week. And even though the chief himself maintains a presence on social media, “Social media is not the place to make traffic complaints.”
“You can talk about traffic problems,” Magee said, and usually he will see them posted in local group pages, but then no one makes a formal complaint.
“So I can’t fix a problem that I don’t even know exists,” he said, which is why the forum that evening was the perfect way to get the public and the police on the same page.
If the same black truck goes speeding by your house the same hour every day, Magee, “Call so we can nip it in the bud.”
“I can have [an officer] there at 6:00 … and nip that in the bud,” said Magee. “Call us! If we know, we can take care of it.”
Mike Fournier of Mattapoisett Road said that although he hasn’t witnessed a speeding problem, per se, he still thinks the speed limit should be lowered.
“I can tell you,” said Magee, “based on my experience, if I speed study that section of the road … there probably wouldn’t be any change.”
“I am more than open to considering studying that other section [of the road],” said Magee, but he cautioned residents that should the 85th percentile reflect that cars are travelling on average at a higher speed than the resident prefers, the speed limit would not only stay the same but it could potentially result in a higher speed limit, according to industry standards.
Wrapping things up that night, Magee listed the preliminary plan of action he and the residents compiled: town meeting articles for equipment, official traffic complaint forms, and resident volunteers to spend a few hours staking out problem areas (not their own streets to avoid bias) to collect speed data on behalf of the Police Department. Furthermore, the chief will host a subsequent speeding forum with residents on a Thursday night in the foreseeable future.
By Jean Perry