Fast talk from a highway expert


July 21, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Tom Hicks knows almost everything there is to know about Maryland highways. He's 75, and has been the State Highway Administration's chief traffic safety engineer for 40 years. He's as frisky and energetic as a new recruit and isn't planning to retire "till I get it right."

Hicks is a passionate advocate of safer roads but not a by-the-book devotee of current posted speed limits. In fact, he's all for raising the speed limit on some Maryland highways.

"We're really somewhat fraudulent in our speed limits - like on the Beltway," Hicks said during a recent extended chat at the highway administration's safety office near BWI.

While the highway administration authorized the interview, top officials were taken aback by Hicks' candor. They put out the word that his comments - especially the word "fraudulent" - did not exactly toe the party line.

"He was speaking from an engineering perspective, not a policy perspective," said SHA spokesman Dave Buck.

Buck emphasized that Hicks was way out on his own when he said the Beltway's prevailing 55 mph limit could probably be raised to 60. And Hicks' more explicit endorsement of higher limits on the limited-access portions of Route 100 and Route 32 - now posted at 55 mph - is "not something that's going to happen anytime soon."

And, Buck noted, state policy is still that the speed limit is the speed limit.

So let's stipulate that Hicks was not speaking for the White House, the State House or the House of Blues. But Hicks was, in a refreshing manner, talking sense.

Hicks said that on limited-access highways, it's safest for drivers to go with the flow rather than stick to the legal limit. Based on years of study of driver behavior, he has a high degree of confidence in the judgment of most folks on the road. Except for a stubbornly fast 10 to 15 percent, he said, drivers tend to choose a sensible rate of speed - regardless of the posted limit.

"The motorist is setting a pace based on conditions at the time, no matter what the signs are," Hicks said. What matters most to safety, he said, is "relative speed." That is, the less difference between thee and me and all the others on the road, the better.

If anybody's looking for validation of ultra-high-speed driving, Hicks is the wrong guy. Driving 72 or 73 mph on a 65-mph stretch of Interstate outside the beltways is probably safe under good conditions, he said. But 80? No way. Such drivers he describes as "idiots." (An engineering term, not state policy.)

Hicks concedes a measure of artificiality when it comes to the statewide maximum of 65 mph for interstate highways. "That's a statutory limit, and that's in the wisdom of the legislature," he said.

He's not criticizing lawmakers, though. Previously, the top state limit was 55 mph - established with good intentions that made no sense in engineering terms. Hicks said "it worked out fine" when speed limits on Interstate 95 between the beltways went up to 65. Most drivers just kept driving the way they did before, he said.

But Hicks isn't pushing higher speed limits on arterial highways such as U.S. 40, or on two-lane local roads. He said those limits are set by rigorous study, not political fiat, as engineers weigh such factors as the frequency of intersections, the number of entrances and exits, the slope of the road, the degree of curves, the amount of tree canopy and other factors.

In Hicks' view, the closer you get to the neighborhood level, the more literally the speed limit should be taken. If somebody is caught doing 50 in a 45 mph zone on a local road, Hicks' attitude is: "Give 'em a ticket."

The problem is the disconnect: A 45 mph limit on Pulaski Highway is deadly serious, while the 55 mph sign on the Beltway is widely seen as a joke.

"It's hard to bring the fast guys down when you start with something ridiculous," Hicks said.

He's right on the money. Underposting a road doesn't improve safety, but does train drivers to ignore speed limits. But in raising those limits, you don't want to raise overall high speeds. They're already too high and increasing. The goal should be to get the maximum percentage of drivers within the zone of reason - say 60 to 72 mph on limited-access highways.

My suggestion, for which Hicks is blameless: Increase the prevailing speed limit on roads such as the beltways, Route 32 and Route 100, but couple that with stiffer enforcement, including the use of cameras. Cut the unofficial police zone of tolerance, now 10 to 15 mph, roughly in half.

Next, establish 80 mph - or 20 over the limit - as the Line of Doom for Maryland roads. Mandatory court date for reckless driving. No probation. Big insurance bills. Big billboard campaign.

Would speeders howl? Yes. Would speeds come down? You bet.

Ideally, we would match changes in enforcement with improved education. Instead of just pointing to a sign and telling new drivers to obey, why not teach them about the factors that go into the decision to post a road at 30 rather than 40? Show them how the engineers factor in curves and hills and driveways. Train them to read the road instead of just the signs.

And instead of taking Tom Hicks to the woodshed, his bosses ought to cast him in a series of educational videos for teenage drivers and just let him be Tom. He's got a star quality about him. The kids would get him.

The challenge would be to keep him on script.

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