3/31/2021OPINION: Federal Transportation Policy Sides With Anti-Car Activists
Commentary on the upcoming changes to Federal Highway Administration rules that will turn every road into a potential speed trap. Part 1 of a series
By John F. Carr
The Federal Highway Administration recently proposed rules that could make every road a speed trap and every intersection a four-way stop. This outcome is the culmination of years of lobbying by anti-car activists, who have now captured the four key organizations responsible for setting transportation policy.
Decades ago, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) supported evidence-based policies that should have led to safe and enforceable speed limits. They held, essentially, that speeding tickets should only be given to the fastest drivers. In recent years, however, both groups surrendered to the anti-car forces -- and not because of new safety data. They got tired of arguing. I saw this at NCUTCD meetings. One engineer complained he kept getting "beat up" when he tried to set speed limits based on safety instead of rubber stamping requests for speed traps. Another worried about upsetting mall owners by telling them what signs they should use. Meanwhile, the ITE replaced safety experts with "Vision Zero" sloganeers.
Within the federal government, the once-competent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was persuaded to call for more speed traps in the name of Vision Zero. The agency issued a report report meant as a pretext for increasing traffic regulation. It relied on bad science to achieve this goal. The Federal Highway Administration needed this report as cover, as the friends of drivers have moved on from the Department of Transportation.
All of the upcoming changes are found in a formal document known as a notice of proposed rulemaking describing changes to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). It proposes hundreds of alterations whose significance is often obscured by opaque regulatory language. Some modifications are minor improvements, like the prohibition on using flashing lights to call attention to a speed feedback sign. Some are well-intentioned but ineffective, like the advice not to use "vanity signs." Some are minor nuisances. Still others are major problems that will change driving for the worse. I'm going to concentrate on the last kind. Of those, the speed limit changes are most likely to affect you.
The public is allowed to comment on the changes. On the docket you will find a stream of comments from grateful officials writing from their post-truth world. They are the ones who appeal to "equity". Equity is what I call a happy word. It sounds good and writing it makes people happy. But it has an air of "I know it when I see it." That phrase was famously written by Justice Potter Stewart in an attempt to distinguish the obscene from the merely sexual. Your movie is obscene if he thinks it is obscene. So, a policy is equitable if it makes people who say "equitable" happy.
People who follow the news should be aware that increasing interactions between police and citizens are far from equitable. Camera enforcement is no better. You might think robots are colorblind, but they show up first in the black neighborhoods, then on commuter routes, and only as a last resort around people who have the ear of policymakers.
The forthcoming changes to federal regulations will only make matters worse. In the next installments I'll explain in more detail what is coming, why it is wrong, and what you should do.