S-T survey finds many breaking the speed limit
By ROB MARGETTA, Standard-Times staff writer
It's just after noon, and traffic is flowing smoothly on Route 88 toward the sunshine at Horseneck Beach in Westport. Cars aren't really pushing the 55 mph speed limit, although the reporter with the radar gun and photographer standing on the side of the road might have something to do with that.
But then the roar of an engine slamming through gears announces that someone is tearing up the two-lane straightaway.
The Silver Lincoln appears like a mirage, its details blurred by heat waves rising from the asphalt. It takes a second to register that the car is in the left lane, facing the oncoming traffic that can be seen in the distance, maybe a mile away.
A broken yellow line separates the lanes; this is a passing zone, but the driver doesn't just duck around a Sunday driver or two. The Lincoln builds up speed, going from 60 mph to 75 to 80 and finally topping off at 88. All the while, it's zooming past a line of three, four, five — yes, six cars!
It then jerks back to the safety of the travel lane.
Not far off, a sign says, "Pass with caution"; town police say 50 crashes were reported on the highway last year.
One of the speediest
The episode featured one of the highest speeds seen during The Standard-Times' completely unscientific look at how fast SouthCoast drivers move on some of their most notorious interstates, highways and side streets.
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Is this study authoritative? No. The sample size is small, the duration was short and the radar gun was picked up from eBay for $100. But it did clock drivers in excess of 70, 80, even 90 mph and up on some roads. That brought it to the same conclusion state and local police reached a long time ago: A lot of people break the speed limit.
"We find more people going faster and faster," State Police Lt. Jose Gonsalves said.
The lieutenant, who supervises the Dartmouth barracks, said troopers have issued tickets for drivers going as fast as 120 mph on Interstate 195, which has a speed limit of 65 in most areas.
On the state highways, speeds are up across the board, and the most flagrant violators are moving faster than they ever have.
"Especially motorcycles," Lt. Gonsalves said. "We have a lot of chases with them that terminate because they're going too fast and can dodge in and out of traffic." Police cruisers, unable to weave like motorcycles, often have to break off pursuit, he said.
Interstate 195 and Routes 24 and 140, all of which are mostly 65 mph zones, are the hot spots for speeding. About half the drivers clocked by The Standard-Times on those highways were going 5 to 10 mph over the posted limits.
In the early morning, a red Toyota pickup headed north on Route 24 at about 85 mph. At midday, a black BMW hit 87 while passing through Dartmouth on I-195 east. And, just after nightfall, a silver Nissan sports car blew through a winding section of Route 140 in New Bedford at 79 mph.
Those speeds were not rarities. Sit on the side of any of those highways with a radar gun and you'll probably see cars whizzing by at more than 70 mph, with someone breaking 80 every so often.
In New Bedford, where the speed limit on I-195 is reduced to 55 mph, most cars headed east toward Fairhaven were exceeding that limit. Just a quick check from the Main Street overpass revealed a blue Buick going 68 mph, a Honda CRV going 72, a tanker truck hitting 67 and a large dump truck lumbering along at 69.
Cars heading west toward Dartmouth moved slower, mostly within the speed limit, largely due to the downtown on-ramp, which feeds slow-moving traffic onto the highway.
Speeds in the 60s and even the 70s were common on the 55 mph Route 88. One van with state plates shot up the northbound lane at 67 mph shortly after the Lincoln made its Evel Knievel-inspired pass.
Police take notice
Those kinds of numbers haven't escaped the notice of the state police, and 2006 is already on its way to becoming a record ticketing year in Massachusetts.
In 2004, troopers statewide handed out 144,616 speeding tickets. The number dropped to 143,737 in 2005 but, at the halfway point of this year, 84,199 already have been issued.
"One of the main reasons for this is the department's commitment to reducing fatal and serious-injury crashes," state police spokesman Sgt. Scott Range said.
Sgt. Range said troopers have been working toward this goal for years and, thus far, the strategy is working. In 2005, accident fatalities in Massachusetts were down by 7.1 percent from the previous year. On state-patrolled roads, they were down 12.5 percent.
There are plenty of data to back up the common-sense notion that speed contributes to the seriousness of accidents. The National Transportation Safety Bureau estimates that excessive speed is a serious factor in 30 percent or more of fatal accidents.
"What we say is people going exceptionally fast have a harder time recovering from mistakes than those going the posted limit," Lt. Gonsalves said.
"Exceptionally fast" is a flexible term, according to the General Law that governs speeding in Massachusetts. The law states that drivers are compelled to move at a "reasonable and proper" rate of speed, which might be less than the posted limit in cases of hazardous weather or road conditions.
Not just the highways
Of course, anyone who has driven through SouthCoast towns knows that the open highways aren't the only places where speeders cut loose.
Although Route 6 is constrained by lights and traffic in New Bedford and Dartmouth, it can be a headache for other local departments.
Almost 11,000 cars travel on Route 6 in Westport every day. Last year, police responded to 98 crashes there.
"On average, we see about 350 to 400 crashes across town per year," police spokesman Sgt. Jeff Majewski said.
He would not speculate on how many of those involved excessive speed, but said, "The majority of citations we write are for speeding."
Route 6 is a problem in other towns, too. Fairhaven Police Chief Gary Souza named the section that runs through the east of town, where there are no lights, the worst area for speeding. The Standard-Times found more than half the cars clocked breaking the 40 mph speed limit there, sometimes by as much as 15 mph.
Tests on parts of Route 6 in Mattapoisett, Marion and Wareham produced similar results.
For Dartmouth, the congested stretch of Route 6 that cuts through is less a problem than Tucker Road and Old Westport Road.
"Because of Dartmouth's configuration — we're 23 miles long and seven miles wide — because we have long, slightly wide, well-maintained roadways, people think they can pick up the speed a little bit," said Officer Joe Viera, a traffic detail veteran. "What they don't realize is that these areas are also highly populated."
Officer Viera named Bakerville Road as another problem street.
"I stopped a young man doing 80 mph there once," he said.
The Standard-Times found many drivers speeding on a 40 mph stretch of Old Westport Road a short distance away from UMass Dartmouth. They stayed mostly between five and seven miles per hour over the posted limit, although one blue Chevrolet pickup hit 53 mph.
During lulls in traffic, a young boy slowly pedalled a bicycle back and forth across the street.
Drivers can certainly hit high speeds on Route 18 in New Bedford, but The Standard-Times also found a few cars going more than 10 miles over the posted speed limits on Coffin Avenue in the North End at night.
In the South End, cars also clocked high speeds on both East and West Rodney French boulevards, which run along the city's southernmost peninsula.
When area police departments identify trouble spots, many try to employ "strategic traffic enforcement."
Sgt. Majewski said that in Westport, such enforcement can be a two-step process. The department will often deploy its "speed radar trailer" — one of those digital signs on the side of the road that tells drivers how fast they are going — to known high-speed or high-crash areas.
The trailer stays for two days as a warning, then it is replaced by officers patrolling the area, looking for speeders, the sergeant said.
Such enforcement can be difficult for smaller departments.
"It's a little different for us," Rochester Police Chief Paul H. Magee said. "We're a small department with 40 square miles of land to cover and two officers on duty."
The chief said his department handles speed enforcement mainly by responding to complaints, and those start pouring in during the early summer.
"That's when people first put the top down and roll down the windows," he said.
If they receive complaints about a specific street, officers will lay down a "black box," Chief Magee said.
If you have ever run over a set of black cables running across the street, you have hit a black box. They measure traffic flow and speed, giving officers an idea of how people drive on a particular road.
But even when the Rochester police identify a spot that needs attention, they usually can't afford to leave an officer on radar enforcement for a shift. That is where their cruisers' onboard equipment comes in handy.
Most modern police cars have radar equipment installed that can read the speed of moving vehicles in front of them. In addition to that front radar, the Rochester cruisers have rear radar and hand-held radar guns that the officers can use.
"Instead of having to wait on the side of the road, they can catch people speeding while moving," Chief Magee said. "That's how we do the majority of our enforcement."
Some of it perceived
Although Chief Magee said his officers respond to all complaints, he added that "a lot of the neighborhood problems are perceived."
And that reflects another way to look at The Standard-Times' (again, completely unscientific) results. About half the people clocked, both on roads and highways, were speeding, but most weren't exceeding the speed limit by very much. And the other half were moving at or below the limits.
"When you're outside, you're mowing your lawn, cars are noisy," Chief Magee said. "They seem to be going fast."
And that point also is true. For someone at a standstill, a car moving at a perfectly legal 40 or 55 mph can seem like it's flying and the radar reading can be a surprise.
But the chief also said police everywhere know that there are drivers who will speed. And they will always be a danger.
"People are always going to be running late. People are always going to want to get ahead of traffic. People are always going to speed," he said. "You'll never eliminate the problem. All you can do is enforcement."
Contact Rob Margetta at