GREENFIELD — Speed limits are set to rise on rural roads throughout Hancock County under an ordinance being considered next week by county commissioners.
More than 70 changes are included in the ordinance. While a few stretches of roads will have their speed limits reduced by 5 mph, most will go up by 5 to 10 mph to the speed most people are driving anyway, local officials say.
While some rural residents worry the changes will cause people to drive too fast on their narrow country roads, officials say the proposal mostly adjusts old speed limits that seem to have been set arbitrarily years ago.
“It really shouldn’t change how fast people are driving, because people are really driving that fast anyway,” said Gary Pool, engineer for the Hancock County Highway Department. “Our goal is not to speed up traffic or slow down traffic, it’s just to match it to safe traffic.”
The plan came about almost two years ago, when county commissioners began asking questions about speed limits along certain rural roads. While county roads across the state are typically set at 55 mph, Commissioner Tom Stevens said he didn’t understand why many of Hancock County’s roads were posted at 45.
Upon further investigation, commissioners found that most of the roads set below 55 mph did not have an engineer’s study to justify the departure from the state standard.
“In order for speed limits to be enforceable, they have to be based on a speed study and meet certain criteria,” Stevens said. “Just because you put up a sign, it doesn’t make the speed limit effective in an enforceable state. We were aware of that problem and also believe that having a speed limit up there that’s not reasonable encourages people to disregard it. So for an overall safety standpoint, we asked the highway department to study it.”
Highway staff put out counters and studied each stretch of road for a week. An engineering standard is to determine what speed 85 percent of motorists are driving, and then to set the speed limit at that figure unless there are curves, hills or obstructions.
“We look at the 85th percentile of speeds, and then we also look at accident reports in the last three years, road conditions, adverse conditions, obstructions in the roadway, roadway width,” said Joe Hollis, engineering manager at the county department. “And then we drive it to see how it feels. We drive it at increments of 5 mph, up to what the recommended speed is.”
Staff also used software to record data and determine limits.
“We don’t always go with the recommended speed limit the (software) gives us,” Hollis added. “We’ll look at the condition in the field and if it doesn’t warrant a higher speed limit, we’ll keep it down.”
One area of the ordinance that may still be in flux is in school zones. Commissioners decided a year ago decided to set speed limits in school zones to 30 mph, four hours a day – at the beginning and end of the school day.
The proposed ordinance suggests the speed limit be 30 mph nine hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pool says that difference will likely be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting and could be changed.
Pool said it will be good for the department to put the ordinance to rest. It took several staff members and many hours to crunch the numbers and put the proposal together.
But not everyone is happy. Some argue that if the speed limits are raised, motorists will drive even faster.
Residents along CR 600E south of U.S. 40 in Blue River Township, for example, point out that their road is narrow and hilly. The ordinance would increase the speed to 50 mph, but resident Elvin Thomas says that will just invite people to speed.
Complicating issues, Thomas added, is truck traffic along his road heading to and from the Bunge Grain plant in Morristown. Allowing drivers to get to the plant more quickly by a matter of seconds is not worth the risk to local residents, he said. The speed limit should be left at 45 mph.
“There are some trucks that appear to be exceeding the speed limit now, and no matter where you put it, there’s always going to be somebody that drives 5 mph faster,” he said. “There are driveways that are hidden; it’s risky getting out on it. Just to be safe, we need to keep it where it is.”
Neighbor John Priore echoed those concerns, and said the broken-down condition of rural roads after the harsh winter should also be taken into consideration.
“You’re not going to please everybody. But what should be in everybody’s mind at this point is safety,” Priore said.
But safety was a priority, Pool says. That stretch along CR 600E has only had one property damage accident in the past three years. While it’s hilly, Pool said the speed limit is more appropriate at 50 mph.
The argument that people will tend to drive faster if the speed limit is raised is typically not true, Pool added. Engineering studies show that the majority of people tend to drive at a speed they feel safe, and posting the speed limit to the pace most people are driving anyway makes sense.
“If 85 percent of the people can drive the road safely and we don’t have an accident, we’re changing the speed limit based on what most drivers are driving at,” Pool said.
If the ordinance is approved, it must be legally advertised before it can take effect. Pool said it will take the rest of this year and possibly through next spring to change the speed limit signs throughout the county.
The areas where the speed limit is decreasing will be a priority, he said, and then the department will post new signs where the speed limits are increased. All signs will be under new federal standards – large and visible with a reflective material to be easily seen at night, Pool said.
Some areas will not be posted at all. That’s because the statewide standard for rural roads is 55 mph, so no signs are necessary.
Commissioners Derek Towle and Brad Armstrong said overall, they’re in favor of the changes.
“I’d rather have something that’s reasonable and totally enforceable than something that’s not reasonable,” Armstrong said. “If you make it a reasonable speed, people tend to be at that. Then when you have somebody break it, they don’t really have a leg to stand on.”
Towle, who is also traffic safety officer for the Greenfield Police Department, said he’s glad the highway department took on the large project. Now, he said, there are studies to prove why rural roads are set at certain speeds.
“We’re just trying to do what’s appropriate for the roadways,” Towle said. “We’re still trying to keep the roadways safe for people to travel. The last thing we’d want is for anybody to get injured or hurt while they’re driving down the roads.”