2017-08-24 / Front Page

Phone Use Causes Concerns on Road

As Traffic Speeds Up on US-2, Police Point Out Dangers of Distracted Driving
By Kevin R. Hess

“No matter the speed, driving can be a dangerous activity,” says Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait, in response to questions about the recent speed limit increase along US-2.

A law signed in January increased speed limits on some state highways and interstates. The decision to increase the speed limits was based on the results of engineering and safety studies. The new law requires that speed limit increases be in place prior to January 5, 2018, but many of them have been in place since late spring. US-2, from St. Ignace to Rapid River in Mackinac, Schoolcraft, and Delta counties, was increased to a limit of 65 miles per hour, from a previous limit of 55. The new speed limit begins just past Burger King in St. Ignace. Interstate 75 from Bay City to Sault Ste. Marie was also increased, from 70 to 75 miles per hour. The increase on US-2, however, has garnered a lot of attention from local residents who believe it was a dangerous stretch of highway even before the increases. Sheriff Strait said the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association opposed the measure, as did many other police agencies.

While they did oppose the increase, Sheriff Strait notes that US-2 has more safety measures in place than previously, and is “much different today than it was in past,” with the additions of rumble strips, passing lanes, and increased guardrails.

“Hopefully, this will offset any potential dangers,” he said.

The changes have only been in place for a few months, and police åsay it is too soon to say whether the increase has led to more citations, accidents, or dangerous driving.

“There are always trends over time,” said Sheriff Strait. “We’ll have to see how it shakes out as time goes on.”

He says patrols on US-2 have not increased, but police are always looking for traffic violations and are watchful about the impacts of the higher speed limits.

“The tolerance will be much tighter than it was before [the change],” he said, “but our primary focus is to enforce the laws and keep people safe. We do that through enforcement, through improved engineering, and through education.”

Michigan State Police (MSP) Sergeant Mark Giannunzio agrees that there isn’t enough data available yet to say whether the increase has had a tangible affect, but does say that there has been an increase in complaints made to police about the increase.

“We tell people that we do not increase the speed, we simply enforce the laws we are given to enforce,” he said. “The increases come from MDOT,” the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Speed is just one factor in traffic violations, Sergeant Giannunzio says, and officers are on the lookout for many things.

“With Cut River Bridge being out right now, the rerouting is clogging up traffic, so it’s something we’ve had to keep a close eye on,” he said.

Both he and Sheriff Strait say that of more concern to police than the speed is when drivers use their phones.

“We’ve seen more accidents caused by distracted drivers lately,” said Sheriff Strait. “Unlike speeding, distracted driving is not as easy to detect. The increased use of cell phones has increased the potential for severe accidents more than anything else. Increasing speeds might add to that potential danger.”

The highway department and state police used the engineering and safety studies to identify corridors in which to increase speeds. The studies used what is called the 85th percentile speed, or the speed at or below which 85% of traffic is moving, which Michigan State Police says is a proven method to determine and establish safe speed limits. The areas selected for increases were chosen because the studies showed that most drivers were already driving at the increased speeds, and also because the design and safety features were best suited to the higher speed limits. The studies reviewed design speeds, crash patterns, numbers of access points, and traffic volumes. Speed limit signs have been changed and other signs have been added, including advisory speed and curve warning signs. MDOT will shorten passing zones, move signs, and change pavement markings where necessary.

While many argue that the increased speeds will make US-2 more dangerous, some say it could actually make the roadways safer. Sergeant John Bruno, District Traffic Crash Deconstructionist for Michigan State Police Eighth District in Marquette, says the changes should create a more uniform flow of traffic, leading to fewer accidents.

“We were finding that the vehicles traveling below the 85th percentile speed led to other drivers making poor judgment choices when trying to pass, causing more accidents,” he said. “By increasing the limits, the hope is that those cars traveling below the 85th percentile now feel comfortable to drive 63, 64, 65, creating a more uniform flow of traffic and less of an urge to pass.”

Sergeant Bruno said they will be compiling data on traffic flow patterns, cause of accidents, conditions, and more to determine the effects of the speed limit increase. At this point, he said, they do not see speed as the main contributing factor in most accidents.

Sergeant Giannunzio and Sheriff Strait both advise drivers to pay close attention to what they are doing and follow the posted speed limits.

“There is no cushion,” said Sergeant Giannunzio. “Put the phones down and drive your vehicle safely and responsibly. If you see and observe people driving dangerously, please report it.”

Dangerous driving can be reported by calling 9-1-1.

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