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FHWA Home / Safety / Speed Management / Speed Management Workshops

Speed Management Workshops

October 31, 2002
Las Vegas, Nevada


On Thursday, October 31, 2002, the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) hosted 72 participants for a Speed Management Workshop - Speed Management: A Multidisciplinary Forum to Discuss Setting and Enforcing Realistic Speed Limits. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), representing the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) multi-agency Speed Management Task Force, jointly sponsored the workshop.

Nevada workshop participants represented Federal, State, county, and local highway agencies, law enforcement agencies, public policy organization officials, and others interested in learning the latest speed-setting techniques and issues. Participants explored how road design influences driving speed, concerns affecting enforcement and adjudication of speed limit violations, and the political and community pressures to change speed limits. A format of speaker presentations and group discussions helped attendees understand the different perspectives on the speed issue and identify opportunities to collaborate and generate broad-based support to reduce speeding.

Issues addressed include:

Beth Alicandri of the FHWA, a Co-Team Leader for the U.S. DOT Speed Management Team, moderated the workshop. She welcomed participants and thanked NDOT for hosting the workshop. To set the stage for the workshop, Ms. Alicandri addressed the high percentage of speeding-related crashes, noting that speed affects everyone. She then reviewed how speeds vary according to road type.

She explained the U.S. DOT Speed Management Team's mission to provide guidance to State and local agencies as well as the agencies that team members represent - FHWA, NHTSA, and the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). She discussed "who speeds," underscoring the importance of localizing the setting and enforcement of reasonable posted limits. She also described several Speed Setting and Enforcement Demonstration Projects funded through the U.S. DOT Speed Management initiative. These Federal- and State-funded projects help communities partner public and private agencies, and the public, to revise speed limits. These revised limits are based on speed studies and involve engineering, enforcement, judicial, and public policy considerations.

Ms. Alicandri then introduced Earl Hardy, NHTSA's Speed Management Team Co-Leader. Mr. Hardy welcomed the group and reinforced the workshop goal of effecting a better understanding by all parties to set reasonable speed limits that reduce crashes and save lives.

Scott Thorson, NDOT Traffic Engineering Section Chief, also welcomed participants and reiterated the workshop goal of better understanding how speed limits are set and enforced.

Ms. Alicandri responded to a question about the background of the Speed Management Workshop by reviewing the Team's function and the goal of developing a guide that local and regional agencies can use to organize and conduct their own workshops.

She then reviewed the workshop agenda, including the morning plenary session of presentations by experts who address speeding from engineering, enforcement, judicial, and public policy perspectives. The afternoon session involved discussion groups whose task was to identify collaborative actions that participants could pursue to address the problem of managing speeding.

Morning Plenary Session

The morning plenary session featured speakers who brought their unique professional perspectives to the problem of managing speeding.

Engineering Issues
Keith Harrison
Safety & Design Engineer, FHWA Western Resource Center

Mr. Harrison prefaced his remarks by noting that they reflect his view of how engineering should help drivers navigate roads safely. He contends that speed management begins with the roadway design, which affects all other decisions.

The basic elements of highway design, he noted, encompass the driver design and the vehicle design. The design speed of a roadway is the benchmark for design features, an index for layout that guides the physical characteristics of a road (sight distance, grading, curvature) to accommodate the capability of various vehicles. He said that engineers cannot design a roadway to accommodate the entire range of driver skills, temperament, or experience. But engineers try to design a "forgiving" roadway that includes barriers and other features to capture errant vehicles and return them to the roadway.

Mr. Harrison advocates designing roads that provide the driver with visual cues to the desirable speed - essentially a roadway that is "self-explaining and self-enforcing." He showed examples of European roadways that use layout, markings, and signage to communicate appropriate travel speeds. He said that the current use of traffic-calming devices, such as narrowing the roadway at pedestrian crossings and intersections, serves the same self-enforcing function. He remarked that too often, engineers design roads without considering other road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.

Mr. Harrison spoke briefly about the advent of the 85th percentile concept for setting speed limits, beginning with the National Safety Council's observation in the early 1940s that under normal circumstances, 80 to 90 percent of drivers will drive the maximum safe speed. Most engineers currently employ the 85th percentile speed as a starting point in setting speed limits, but with the understanding that roadway access and other highway users affect the recommended safe speed.

He also urged participants to "practice consistency" between highway design and speed limits. Posting multilane highways at too low a speed, or two-lane roadways at too high a speed simply encourages drivers to ignore posted limits.

Enforcement Issues
Sergeant Vincent Aurentz
Dallas (Texas) Police Department

Sergeant Aurentz noted that his remarks reflect an urban perspective, but the principles can be applied to most roadways and enforcement efforts.

In discussing why police enforce speed limits, the sergeant rejected the common misperception of city managers and the public who often think that officers write tickets to make money for the city. While enforcement activities generate some revenue, he noted the more than $27 billion annual economic cost of speeding and underscored the correlation between speeding and roadway fatalities - which also cause taxes and insurance rates to rise.

Sergeant Aurentz illustrated the historical relationship between speeds and fatalities: When speed is up, fatalities rise. The 85th percentile speed, which he believes is essentially the posted speed limit plus 10, is usually set with restrictions. For example, drivers may speed because they fail to notice - or disregard - previously posted speed limits. He also discussed how politicians could set unrealistic speed limits because of concerns other than speed, such as fuel conservation and environmental concerns.

From an enforcement perspective, Sergeant Aurentz cited elements of the deterrence process and whether motorists are cited for speeding:

Sergeant Aurentz focused much of his presentation on how engineering activity affects enforcement activity and urged the two professions to collaborate on road design projects. For example, efforts to relieve congestion often lead to reconfiguring the roadway. Many road agencies eliminate shoulders and medians to accommodate additional or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Law enforcement traditionally uses these areas for enforcement activity. Sergeant Aurentz observed that when enforcement areas are eliminated, "there's simply no safe place for the officer or violator to be." A consequence can be that speed enforcement on some roads is essentially impossible.

He also spoke of the difference between basic and absolute speed limits. In an 'absolute' speed law state, officers enforce all speeds over the posted limit. Many States use basic speed limits, and an officer must be able to prove that the speed was unsafe. In terms of effective enforcement and adjudication, officers citing a driver for speeding must know the posted speed limit at a specific location and establish that posted speed limit signs are conspicuous to the traveling public. Here, Sergeant Aurentz reiterated remarks by Keith Harrison about the need for posting consistent limits. The sergeant noted that when posted speeds on a roadway change for no apparent reason, it confuses motorists and leads to further disregard for those limits. He also advised that enforcement officers primarily want to reduce speeding, not reduce the speed limits.

Judicial Issues
Judge Robin Smith
Presiding Judge, City of Midland (Texas) Municipal Court

Judge Smith first assured attendees that regardless of circumstances, judges are required to apply all laws fairly, based on presented facts. They must bring no bias or preconceived position to how speed enforcement should be applied to individual cases before them.

He spoke about the judge's reliance on law enforcement personnel to provide sufficient information about the violation. Because only 5 percent of traffic offenses are heard in court, it is incumbent on enforcement personnel to be prepared to provide sufficient detail about each offense and articulate why the speed was unreasonable or imprudent. He noted that speeding violations are routinely dismissed for inaccurate paperwork, offenses cited under the wrong statue, plea bargain, or because officers are not present at trial. Judge Smith urged officers to take better notes on each incident and he advocated better training for officers on how to follow courtroom procedures and testimony.

Officers must also provide evidence that proper procedures were followed. For example, if officers used radar to record the speed, was the radar accurately tested and calibrated, and could they differentiate between vehicles? He also encouraged jurisdictions to take advantage of available enforcement technologies, which included enforcement cameras, data recorders, global positioning system devices (GPS), and video.

Judge Smith reiterated design concerns about whether or not roadway speed limits are properly marked and readily visible to drivers and enforcement personnel. The judge urged that speed limits be set by study, not politics, and reviewed regularly. He also talked about how the demeanor of the defendant or officer, in terms of being belligerent, relaxed, or nervous, can affect the trial.

Texas routinely videotapes all traffic stops and Judge Smith showed a video of a motorist stopped for speeding to illustrate some of the issues he addressed. The use of video cameras in patrol vehicles has reduced the request for trial by more than 60 percent.

Workshop participants asked several questions, including whether the law requires notices of taping enforcement traffic stops. Texas does not. Judge Smith likes video technology because it makes for good evidence, and "the more information, the better."

In response to a request for more information about the role of demeanor, Judge Smith responded that officers in his courtroom frequently are unsure of their facts, lack confidence, or are cocky in their responses. He advised enforcement personnel not to make up for gaps in their recollection, noting, "making up answers causes a lack of credibility, which lasts."

Another question concerned whether judges ask for reviews of speed limits. Judge Smith answered that if he notices a problematic road, he might send a note to the traffic-engineering department to investigate.

To a question about judges sometimes showing leniency in cases, Judge Smith responded that because people take the time and make the effort to appear for the hearing, a judge might reduce the fine.

Public Policy/Political Issues
Wayne Reece
Reece & Associates

Mr. Reece, a public affairs attorney, conducted a wide-ranging Q&A discussion with workshop participants about issues affecting the setting and enforcement of speed limits - essentially to help him "see issues through participants' eyes." When asked, all participants indicated their jurisdictions have equal problems with speeding and enforcing speed limits.

Participants addressed the efficacy of the 85th percentile as an appropriate indicator for setting speed limits. They stated that the 85th percentile is based on driver perception, not that of pedestrians, who often believe that vehicles travel at speeds higher than the speed limits. Additionally, several participants voiced the opinion that pedestrians are too often the overlooked roadway user whose needs are not accommodated.

Responding to a participant's question about the high fatality rates on rural roads, Mr. Reece discussed factors affecting that rate. He considers these fatalities to be a complex issue involving multiple factors such as drivers' tendency to raise the average driving speed on low-density roadways; the incidence of crashes at night; drowsiness; a longer response time of medical personnel to a crash; and an unforgiving roadside environment of trees, poles, and fences.

Several participants shared experiences of unproductive efforts to work with local legislators and politicians to set speed limits. Most indicated frustration with the lack of consistency in how speed limits are set, including decision makers' frequent disregard for the professional engineers' perspective.

Mr. Reece indicated that safety, not politics, should be the factor in setting speed limits. He said there is a denial of speed as a problem in communities and the public does not recognize the magnitude of the problem. Decision makers and the public do not perceive losing the lives of 40,000 individuals annually on the Nation's roadways to be a local problem. Mr. Reece urged participants to collaborate with other professionals in the speed-setting and -enforcement arena and find ways to raise the "volume" and make people aware. Or, as business guru Franklin Covey says, "seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Afternoon Breakout Sessions

For the afternoon, workshop organizers assigned participants to concurrent breakout groups - Red, Yellow, and Green Teams. Assigning participants ensured a representative cross section of disciplines, urban and rural perspectives, and public and private sector organizations. Moderator Beth Alicandri discussed the groups' task as "creating the product": An action plan to take back to their respective agencies to help reduce speeding-related fatalities. She also urged participants to share their experiences and concerns about practices for enforcing credible speed limits.

The format for the facilitated sessions was to devote 20 minutes each to the engineering, enforcement, and judicial and public policy aspects of managing speed. At the conclusion of each session, each group identified the top three high-priority actions in each category that are critical to the success of speed management efforts and must be initiated in the very short term.

Plenary Reporting Session

Following the breakout groups' work, participants reconvened for the second plenary session, which focused on action items developed. Volunteers from the Red, Yellow, and Green Teams presented results of individual team discussions and identified issues affecting their decisions.

Engineering Issues

Breakout groups addressed wide-ranging issues and obstacles affecting setting and enforcing speed limits. Many issues reflected Nevada's contrasting rural and urban environments, its rapidly growing population centers, and changing neighborhoods. Consequently, different criteria should affect how speeds are set on city streets and highways. Participants felt that engineering decisions affecting speed limits, especially in new developments, should be made earlier in the project-planning process. Roads change as areas develop rapidly, and the groups agreed that too often, road agencies react to situations rather than plan for future growth in the engineering stage.

The lack of planning, and decisions made before engineering professionals become part of the process, increases problems on urban and suburban roadways. This inability to foresee future congestion causes problems as areas develop and smaller, outdated roads become major arterials. Several participants suggested that instituting one-way street patterns in suburban areas to encourage drivers to use certain streets rather than crowded arterials. Also, participants cited instances where "aesthetics" look nice, but often they create safety obstacles for drivers. Suggested measures included educating decision makers and developers about the engineer's role in designing roadways, especially in areas where road networks must meet the needs of current residents and businesses but also accommodate future growth needs.

The breakout groups also explored using traffic-calming measures to decrease speeds, especially on urban streets. Discussions centered on alternatives to speed humps as a method to lower driving speeds. Of particular concern is the speed hump's effect on emergency responders' access. Participants agreed that better education for decision makers and the traveling public about traffic-calming measures would lead to less insistence for installing speed humps. For example, roundabouts can effectively reduce speeds and improve safety, but drivers and pedestrians must understand how to use them - essentially, decision-making entities could "steer public perception."

Education and public awareness campaigns are necessary so that decision makers and drivers are more sensitive to posted speed limit changes that reflect different driving environments (rural versus urban, urban streets versus freeways). Drivers are comfortable with higher speeds and vehicles are much safer; however, travel speeds should correlate with design speeds. Engineers should therefore use different criteria for setting limits on urban and rural roads, or on city streets, and design roadways that encourage driving those limits.

Finally, participants advocated the need to involve enforcement personnel in planning decisions.

Team reporters identified the following priority engineering actions:

Red Team

  1. Improve design of neighborhood roadways so that traffic flows more smoothly.
  2. Encourage collaboration between developers and engineers when designing new communities.
  3. Educate decision makers and enforcement personnel about engineering and design decision rationale.

Yellow Team

  1. Correlate design speed and speed limit.
  2. Require a master plan for transportation engineering projects.
  3. Create system to address existing roadway infrastructure.

Green Team

  1. Design roadways to best suit the environment and community needs - solicit input from regional entities.
  2. Seek input from law enforcement to improve existing roadways.
  3. Institute regional design planning and develop partnerships for consistent management.

Enforcement Issues

Each breakout group noted lack of funding, which has reduced manpower and equipment, as an obstacle to enforcing speed limits. As a result, fewer officers are available to meet competing responsibilities to perform law enforcement and traffic duties. Reduced availability also underscores the need to establish appropriate, regionally consistent speed limits so that officers can target speeders more effectively.

Participants viewed enforcement as part of the solution to curbing speeding. Enforcement is a short-term solution, where engineering roadways for specific design speeds is a longer term solution. Although some participants were skeptical about the technology's accuracy, others saw automated enforcement technology as a possible solution to the lack of enforcement personnel.

Each group discussed the pressures on law enforcement from elected officials. This seems to be a problem, especially in communities where local enforcement personnel and elected officials may respond to constituent complaints about citations for speeding without regard for the engineering or enforcement expertise involved in the original speed-setting decisions. There was consensus for consistent enforcement and adjudication of speed violations as a deterrent to speeding. There was concern that courts often fail to treat traffic tickets seriously because judges don't perceive speeding as a real crime. One group was concerned that courts in one region may not have access to an offender's driving record in another jurisdiction. Education and consensus building offer the best opportunities to reinforce the importance of driving the posted speed limits.

Again, each group discussed the need for increased communication and collaboration among enforcement and engineering disciplines to address the problem of speeding on all roads. Education should play a key role in changing the mindset of drivers by holding them accountable for their actions.

One group noted the important role of law enforcement officials in collecting crash data, which could be valuable to engineers.

Breakout group reporters cited the following high-priority enforcement actions:

Red Team

  1. Encourage enforcement agencies and communities to use automated enforcement technologies.
  2. Combine resources and experience of enforcement and engineering personnel in the planning process to improve existing roadways.
  3. Create systems to develop better crash and speed data and organize data to be more useful to enforcement and engineering concerns.

Green Team

  1. Enhance enforcement capability by identifying new funding sources and getting buy-in from interested parties, heighten visibility by using high-profile vehicles.
  2. Develop methods to enhance regional judicial consistencies and increase penalties.
  3. Educate the public about the consequences of speeding and resulting damage.

Yellow Team

  1. For enforcement to be an effective deterrent, the courts must hold drivers accountable for offenses.
  2. Identify new resources to support increased numbers of enforcement personnel.
  3. Institute credible and consistent speed limits on roadways.

Public Policy/Judicial Issues

Two groups discussed that Nevada essentially has two speed limit laws, one each for rural and urban areas. One group advocated creating a State statute for setting criteria for speed laws and allowing local decisions to be made based on data-driven studies.

Participants felt that politicians respond to individual crashes rather than instituting safety programs and campaigns to reduce the incidence of crashes. Education should play a key role in helping local and regional decision makers understand speeding in the broader public health context.

One breakout group discussed the public's perception of speeding, noting that most people don't believe that they and their neighbors are part of the speed problem. Most residents perceive speeders to be strangers who drive their neighborhoods to avoid congestion elsewhere. As a response, some road departments have begun issuing radar guns to residents to help them understand the issue. Also, individuals knowledgeable about the issue of speeding can effectively educate public policy makers about possible solutions. Together, these individuals and policy makers can identify alternative solutions to the speed problem and effectively influence the judicial branch to impose more consistent fines.

Several groups also considered the need for consistent fines linked to specific speed problems. For example, fines for some speed violations are very low when compared to fines for school zone violations.

Finally, all groups recognized the need for better safety programs in K-12 grades to help students be more careful pedestrians and better, more thoughtful drivers.

Breakout group reporters identified the following high-priority actions in the public policy/judicial area:

Yellow Team

  1. Identify ways to keep politicians accountable for decisions affecting speeding.
  2. Encourage politicians to be proactive, not just reactive to individual constituent complaints, "sensational" crashes, or other high-visibility traffic issues.
  3. Institute safety education in K-12 to prepare safer pedestrians and drivers, especially younger drivers.

Red Team

  1. Educate communities about traffic-claming measures and their role in reducing speeding.
  2. Collaborate on education and outreach programs to help the public understand the issue of speeding.
  3. Target education campaigns to policy makers.

Green Team

  1. Develop a State statute specifying that speed-setting criteria should be data based, but also allow for flexibility based on local discretion and public input.
  2. Form more powerful public/private partnerships (law enforcement, citizens, engineers) and give all partners an equal voice in setting and enforcing speed limit decisions.
  3. Use research data to educate politicians and the public regarding the mechanics of setting speed limits, including what engineers and planners do, and why.

Following reports from the breakout sessions, Ms. Alicandri commended the groups for their insights and noted commonalities among the groups' reports. To improve planning and enforcement, groups emphasized the importance of better coordination among and across jurisdictions and disciplines. Groups also stressed the importance of coordination and cooperation in the law enforcement area. They especially noted the need to combine resources for more effective enforcement activities and the importance of a regional jurisdictional perspective to promote consistent enforcement standards. In the public policy arena, the groups noted the need to educate the public and policy makers about the correlation between speed limits and road design. They also advocated instituting safety education programs in K-12 grades to help children understand the importance of walking and driving safely.

At the workshop's conclusion, Ms. Alicandri again thanked participants for their thoughtful insights. She encouraged them to continue their own initiatives, explore ways to collaborate to solve problems, and urged participants to continue the discussion in the months following the workshop.


The Nevada Speed Management Workshop raised a variety of issues concerning the need for increased communication and cooperation among speed-setting and -enforcement agencies. Nevada has several current cooperative arrangements and task forces, such as the interdisciplinary Nevada Traffic Control Committee, which provide ideal networks to continue to address issues raised at the workshop. Workshop evaluations indicate that plenary session speakers and the breakout sessions raised participants' perception of the need to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the problem of speeding and reinforced the importance of collaboration among agencies to address the problem.

Page last modified on October 15, 2014
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