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Ever notice that a lot of people seem to be driving faster than the speed limit?

It might surprise you to learn that if speed limits were set based on traffic engineering standards, as required by federal law, this would never happen. Most drivers choose safe speeds on their own, so the engineering standard is to set a speed limit near the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic. That means the violation rate should be 15% or less. A majority of speeding cars is proof that the speed limit is too low.

This table compares 85th percentile speeds to actual speed limits at a number of locations in the Boston area.

Roads are grouped by agency in control. Jump to: MDC, MassHighway, Turnpike, cities and towns.

Metropolitan District Commission
Charles River RoadWatertownE. of Watertown Square3039441
Greenough Blvd.WatertownN. of Arsenal Street40455017
S. of Arsenal Street3038445
Hammond Pond ParkwayNewtonS. of Beacon Street3044500
BrooklineS. of Route 940455022
VFW Parkway BostonSt. Josephs Cemetary3541458
BrooklineSouth Street35404620
BostonE. of West Roxbury Parkway3542489
Centre StreeetBostonWestchester Road3038434
JamaicawayBostonParkwood Terrace2536390
West Roxbury ParkwayBostonBellevue Hill Road40424636
Storrow DriveBostonEB at Clarendon Street4052590
WB at Clarendon Street4049579
BU Bridge4053591
Soldiers Field RoadBostonWestern Ave. Bridge4050564
W. of Eliot Bridge35424911
EB E. of Beacon Street3042464
WB E. of Beacon Street3546523
Nonantum RoadBostonW. of N. Beacon Street40454919
Memorial DriveCambridgeEB E. of Mass. Ave.35424812
WB E. of Mass. Ave.35394222
BU Bridge3542479
Fresh Pond ParkwayCambridgeFresh Pond Lane3036406
Longfellow BridgeCambridgeMemorial Drive ramp3040476
Turnpike Authority
Turnpike extension Boston Mass. Ave.55616720
Market Street5567734
Newton Walnut Street5565715
Woodland Street55636911
Turnpike WestonWinter Street65697523
WestboroughSpring Road65717819
OxfordMerriam Road65717722
WarrenLittle Bemis Road65717716
StockbridgeRoute 10265717715
Route 1NewburyS. of Hanover55525780
DanversPeabody C.L.50505850
SaugusRoute 12950525842
PlainvilleS. of 15255495685
Route 2 BelmontRoute 605566715
LexingtonW. of Pleasant St.5567744
LincolnPage Road4555626
ConcordSandy Pond Road4555616
ActonWetherbee St.4561671
ActonW. of 2755647211
LancasterExit 3655657111
TempletonOtter River Road5565723
PhillipstonHighland Ave.55596326
Route 2A LexingtonEmerson Gardens Road35374234
LexingtonTufts Road3038422
LincolnBedford Lane40444917
Route 3BedfordOld Billerica Road5566732
WeymouthMiddle Street60646836
NorwellRiver Street60667219
Route 6YarmouthWest Yarmouth Road5565733
Route 7SheffieldS. of Great Barrington T.L.55525783
WiliamstownS. of Route 245455053
Route 8SandisfieldS. of 5755576341
Route 9 NewtonParker Street50505550
WellesleyEmerson Road50546029
WilliamsburgPost Office2533373
WilliamsburgE. of South Street2534394
WindsorE. of 8A55586335
Route 10BernardstonE. of I-9155535861
Route 20 WatertownEmerson Road35374138
WalthamSummit Avenue35374232
WestonCrescent Street40414449
WestonLinwood Avenue45444772
Brimfield2.8 mi. W. of Sturbridge55576440
LenoxS of 7A55556251
Route 24BerkleyBryant Street65717720
Route 28 MiltonRidgewood Street45505624
QuincySkyline Trail50475371
Route 88WestportS. of Old County Rd.55586732
I-91 West SpringfieldN. of Route 565677346
NorthamptonS. of Route 5&1065677346
I-93 MiltonExit 35568764
MiltonPleasant Street55616724
MedfordExit 33 (NB)55667213
MedfordExit 33 (SB)5571774
MedfordExit 31 (SB)55657410
WilmingtonN. of Route 6265697731
I-95Boxfordnear Route 13365727818
Route 112GoshenS. of Ashfield T.L.55586437
Route 125AndoverS. of 2850545921
Route 128 GloucesterS. of Concord St.55626924
WalthamRoute 1175567736
NeedhamKendrick Street5566715
NeedhamN. of Great Plain Ave.5565737
Route 135WellesleyBacon Street45485331
Route 138MiltonCanton T.L.40414646
Route 146MillburyRoute 122A5061685
I-195 MattapoisettW. of North St.65687636
Fall RiverRoute 2455626922
I-290WorcesterEast Central St.50576414
I-495 BoltonN. of 6265687436
AmesburyS. of I-9565697526
Cities and towns
Route 126BellinghamFox Run Road35*42458
Commonwealth AvenueBrightonW. of Harvard Street30*364116
Evergreen Cemetery30*37429
Jewish War Veterans DriveDorchesterFranklin Park25*37412
Washington StreetWest RoxburyCowing Street25*40470
Middlesex TurnpikeBurlingtonTerrace Hall Ave.35414614
Route 109MillisDover Road40*455017
Spring StreetLexingtonUnderwood Ave.30*37413
Greendale AvenueNeedhamHighgate Street40424635
Auburn StreetNewtonW. of Washington Street2534381
Chestnut StreetNewtonKodaya Road25*34384
Lexington StreetNewtonN. of Auburndale Ave.3036408
Commonwealth AvenueNewtonE. of 12835384214
E. of 163541459
E. of Walnut35364048
Washington StreetNewtonE. of 3035374127
W. of 3035364139
Route 181PalmerSouth High Street40404451
Route 16WatertownDerby Road30*323728
Walnut Street30*343820
Route 30WestonWare Street45424681

Speeds on the Turnpike, MDC parkways, city and town roads, and some state highways in the Boston area were measured with a LIDAR speed measuring device in 2000 and 2001. Speeds for other state highways were measured by MassHighway loop sensors in 1999 and are totals for a complete day instead of just free-flowing traffic. Traffic speeds are usually very similar in both directions. When speeds in both directions are available and differ significantly, both are listed separately. Otherwise the average is listed.

What does this mean?

The national standard is to round the 85th percentile up to the next multiple of 5 MPH to determine a speed limit. None of the roads measured meets that standard. Only a few are within 5 MPH. All but one of these are minor state highways where engineers have been permitted to have some influence in the process of setting speed limits.

The MDC doesn't do engineering studies, and it shows. Typical speed limits are 15 MPH too low. Both Hammond Pond Parkway and Storrow Drive have speed limits 20 MPH too low.

Speed limits on major highways are set by politicians. Compliance is around 5% in 55 MPH zones (which were mostly posted 60 until 1974) and up to 25% in 65 MPH zones. Based on these measurements, speed limits should be increased from 55 and 65 to 70, 75, and 80.

The speed limit in Franklin Park, Boston is illegal because it has not been approved by the state. The Mayor, who was almost hit by a car, insists on strict enforcement of the illegal speed limit. The limit should be 40, not 25. Commonwealth Avenue is also illegally posted.

Middlesex Turnpike in Burlington was rebuilt a few years ago, widened to four lanes plus left turn lanes at intersections. The 35 MPH speed limit for the old road has been posted on the new road.

Spring Street, Lexington is illegally posted 30. The authorized limit is 35; 31% of drivers obey that limit.

Route 16, Watertown, is illegally posted 30. No speed limit is authorized; the proper speed limit would be 35.

Many other speed limits were only 5 MPH too low when they were set, but now they are much too low. Cities and towns don't like to change speed limits, and some limits have remained unchanged since the early 1950s!

Feedback to John Carr,

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