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Nicolls Road speed limit reduction raises hackles

Florence Singler stands next to a sign warning

Florence Singler stands next to a sign warning of the lowered speed limit on a section of Nicolls Road on July 18, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Judy Cartwright

A decision last winter to reduce the speed limit on Nicolls Road, between the east and west campuses of Stony Brook University, prompted suspicion -- is it a speed trap? -- as well as criticism.

The reduction, from 55 mph to 45 mph, defied Suffolk County's own traffic engineering studies that called for keeping the speed limit at 55 mph.

The university requested the lower speed limit in September, citing the need for improved traffic safety, especially for pedestrians. But the process that followed veered from standards set by the Federal Highway Administration, guidelines that are used across the country to determine how speed limits are set.

The episode prompts us to ask: Do good intentions lead to good speed limits? And when such intentions override traffic engineering expertise and federal safety standards, does it undermine a traffic system that drivers have come to rely on?

The agency's speed limit guidelines point out that sticking with established standards used in the studies has "the added advantage that a properly set speed limit will provide residents, businesses and pedestrians with a realistic expectation of actual vehicular speeds on the street."

When the 45 mph signs were posted on Nicolls Road about five months ago, drivers and neighbors expressed their concerns. Chris Spies of Holbrook, who works in a state office on the Stony Brook campus, told us the reduced limit "makes no sense for a public highway of this character."

But let's back up.

When the university asked Suffolk County to lower the speed limit -- Nicolls Road is County Road 97 -- County Executive Steve Bellone's office passed the request along to the Public Works Department.

In October, the department undertook two traffic-engineering studies that examined such elements as average daily traffic volume and prevailing speeds, the number of crashes and injuries over three years, and the type of roadway. That 1.6-mile stretch is a four-lane divided highway with a grassy median, interrupted by traffic signals at three campus entrances.

Among the findings: The roadway has lower crash and injury rates than similar multilane divided roadways. The studies, relying on different methodologies, both concluded that a 60 mph speed limit would be suitable; and, since 60 is not permitted in New York State, called for maintaining the existing 55 mph limit.

Now it gets puzzling.

In November, the department sent a letter to the Brookhaven Town Board, which is responsible for setting speed limits within town borders. But the letter did not recommend keeping the 55 mph limit; instead, it asked the board to consider reducing the limit to 45 mph. On Feb. 4 the town board, in a unanimous vote, agreed to do so.


Pointed question

Spies put it best in an email to the county: "What is the point of requiring the traffic study before making such a change to the posted speed limit if you are not going to follow the advice of your own study anyway?"

According to the National Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, local jurisdictions occasionally override traffic engineering guidelines. Such deviations are permissible, the manual says, "provided that the . . . jurisdiction fully documents the engineering reasons for the deviation."

But the county did not document the need for this speed limit reduction, according to email correspondence within the Public Works Department, one of which asked: "Since we didn't do a speed study to establish the 45 mph at SBU, is it a legal enforceable speed limit?" Newsday obtained the traffic engineering reports and correspondence related to the speed limit change through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Why did the county proceed with a recommendation for a lower speed limit that wasn't supported by the county's own studies? County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the university had "reached out to Suffolk County for the safety of the students and workers and asked for a reduction in the speed limit."

The county wanted to "work cooperatively with" the university, she said. "In working to ensure that we provide public safety, it was imperative to address the reducing of the speed limit to ensure safety. We worked with the college . . . the largest on-site employer in Suffolk, to provide safety for the thousands of employees and students as well as visitors to University Hospital."

And she cited three pedestrian traffic fatalities in a five-year period, from 2005 to 2010, and said the county supported the speed limit reduction "in consultation with the college and [in light of] the fatalities and to ensure public safety."

In the past four years, no fatal accidents have occurred on that stretch of road, according to Suffolk County police; 18 motor vehicle crashes resulted in injuries.

It's impossible to know if a 45 mph speed limit would have prevented the fatalities the county cited. Each occurred at night on a road that has been described as poorly lit.

Email correspondence indicates that the county didn't wait for the traffic studies before agreeing to lower the speed limit.

"The County Executive met with SUNY Stony Brook today and agreed to reduce the speed of CR 97 down to 45 mph . . . What do we need to do to make this happen?" Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson wrote to department staff in September.

A few weeks later, a member of Bellone's staff wrote to the department: "The CE is meeting with Dr. Stanley this afternoon," shorthand for the county executive and university president Samuel Stanley. "Can you send me an update as to the speed limit change request?"

Skeptics of the lower limit, and its rationale of pedestrian safety, say it's rare to see pedestrians on Nicolls Road. The university encourages use of a tunnel under the road that connects the two campuses; for anyone who chooses to cross the road, the three campus crossings have traffic signals with pedestrian countdown clocks.

But "there are virtually no pedestrians," said Florence Singler, who has lived near the campus since 1975. From her vantage point, the speed limit change amounts to a speed trap, one she says "is not nice for town and gown" relations.

Such skepticism isn't unwarranted: The number of speeding tickets issued rose substantially in the three months after the 45 mph signs were installed. University police handed out "approximately 70" speeding tickets on Nicolls from March 1 to June 30, University police Chief Robert Lenahan said. In the same period last year, "approximately 15" were issued, he said, with 27 issued in the entire year.

Lenahan said the speed crackdown was part of a "pedestrian safety initiative on campus as well as the adjoining roadways" and that an electronic sign has been used periodically to inform drivers of the 45 mph limit.


Insist it's not a trap

As for concerns that the university or county had set up a speed trap: "So your readers will realize it's not a cash grab, all the tickets were issued for [speeds of] 60 to 81 miles per hour," Baird-Streeter said. "It's not like they [university police] were ticketing at 48 [mph]."

She added: "Hopefully over time driving mechanics will change to ensure those crossing roadway will be safe."

But the Federal Highway Administration, in its Methods and Practices for Setting Speed Limits manual, says good intentions aren't enough to produce safe roads.

It's not unusual for local jurisdictions to set lower limits that disregard traffic-safety standards, the manual says, adding that such reduced speed limits "are often the result of political pressures."

Then it adds, in bold type: Such a practice "does not encourage compliance with the posted speed limit."

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