A few months ago, a retired Delta Township insurance salesman named Pat Cavanaugh got nipped for speeding on Cedar Street in Lansing.
And like most victims of a speeding ticket, he was a bit upset. First of all, he never saw a speed limit sign that told him how what speed he should have been going. And even if there was one, Cavanaugh said, he didn’t think he was going much faster than the speed of his fellow motorists on that particular day.
So Cavanaugh started digging into state law and started making some telephone calls. What he discovered was that many streets — not only in Lansing, but also across the state — are not marked with the proper speed limit.
While the city of Lansing claims its streets are immune from this quirk in state law Cavanaugh found, the Michigan State Police and local officials confirm that several Michigan Department of Transportation-owned streets, like M-99 (Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), Business Loop 96 (Grand River Avenue and Cedar Street) and every street in the Capitol Loop (Allegan Street, Capitol Avenue and Ottawa Street) are mismarked.
St. Joseph and Main streets, the roads that run parallel to Interstate 496, are not marked properly, and neither are Pine and Walnut streets from I-496 to downtown. The big one-way expanses of Howard and Homer streets, which run parallel to U.S. 127, technically have a speed limt of 55.
As someone who rides his bike up and down Ottawa nearly every business day from April to October, trust me when I tell you I’m not advocating you try 55.
The State Police don’t want you driving that fast, and if the Lansing Police catch you driving 55 on a street like Ottawa, you’re likely going to have to test the legality of this argument inside a courtroom.
Eventually, when the Michigan State Police’s traffic unit is able to finish all of its studies (maybe as soon as the end of this year), these streets will be properly marked.
But until then, the state and many municipalities are finding themselves in a tough situation because of a 2006 law that changed how speed limits are set in Michigan.
Basically, any street that isn’t in a downtown business district or a subdivision has a default speed limit that’s based on the number of driveways and cross streets that connect with it in a half -mile stretch — these are what is known as access points.
If there are 60 or more access points, which most residential streets are, the default speed limit is 25. If it’s 44 to 59, it’s 35 MPH. If it’s 30 to 44, the default is 45 MPH. Anything over that is 55 MPH, Lt. Gary Megge of the State Police traffic unit confirmed.
“These cities will tell you, ‘Well, that street has been 25 for four years.’ Well, they’re right, but in most cases, they’ve been wrong for four years,” Megge said.
Call it a case of unintended consequences or the tale of a well-meaning law went awry, but many streets in Michigan are technically mismarked because of that 2006 state law.
In the past, cities were able to stretch the state’s Motor Vehicle Code to create a default speed limit of 25 mph on just about any street under its jurisdiction. That changed when the state police and lawmakers teamed up a couple years ago to eliminate local speed traps like Grand River in East Lansing.
Now, if the appropriate road authority doesn’t like what the speed limit would be based on the number of access points, it needs to send out traffic engineers to conduct a technical study on what that speed limit should be.
The problem, obviously, is that the state, cities, townships and counties only have so much time and resources.
The other problem is that the various municipalities can’t get to all the streets immediately.
Megge, has corrected speeds on dozens of streets, such as that former speed trap on I-496, where it used to be 55 before the state law and now is 70. His team also has corrected the speed on Interstate 127, too. The MSP is almost done with studies on Homer, Howard, St. Joseph and Main.
After that, he’s hoping to finish traffic studies on the rest of Lansing’s streets by the end of the year.
Lansing officials say Lansing avoided the panic of readjusting all of its nondowntown commercial, non-residential speed limits because the city adopted the Uniform Vehicle Code instead of the Motor Vehicle Code when it comes to speed control. In the opinion of the city attorney, this quirk in state law doesn’t impact them.
No matter. For all his work, Cavanaugh was still able to talk down his ticket in court to a lesser offense.
(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.)