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How Speed Limits Get Set In Vermont

Three speed limit signs, one that says 25 mph, one that says 30 mph along with a No Parking This Side of Street sign, and one that is 35 mph
Emily Corwin, Meg Malone
From left to right, speed limit signs in Bridgewater, South Burlington and Plymouth. Here's a look at how speed limits are set on local and state roads in Vermont.

In 1999, the chairman of the select board for the town of Mount Tabor requested the speed limit on Route 7 in town be reduced from 50 mph to 45 mph. An Agency of Transportation engineering study seemed to support a speed as high as 60 mph. The agency recommended the limit remain at 50 mph.

Then a separate statewide transportation committee went even lower.  The new speed limit was set at 45 mph, what town officials had originally requested.

Today, more motorists are ticketed on that stretch of Route 7 than almost anywhere else in the state.

RELATED — VPR Investigation: These Three Towns Issue A Quarter Of The State's Traffic Fines

Here's how speed limits get set in the Green Mountain State.

Local Roads

Speed limits on local roads are set by local governments. They can be between 35 mph and 50 mph without an engineering study; and can be as low as 25 mph if set on the basis of an engineering study.

Read the statute

In its guidance to municipalities, the Vermont Agency of Transportation urges local officials not to set speed limits too low. “To effectively enforce a law, the public must believe that the law is reasonable,” writes the agency. “Local officials should not set a uniform speed limit for all roads and streets, nor should they succumb to pressure by residents to lower speed limits.”

The agency also urges towns to conduct engineering studies before setting limits: “The majority of motorists will drive at a speed that they perceive to be safe. In the absence of a study identifying that speed limit, setting a speed limit too low merely punishes motorists who otherwise obey the law.”

Short of other factors, such as limited sight distance or high crash incidents, federal guidance and best practice recommend the speed limit be set at the current rate under which 85 percent of motorists drive.

State Roads

Speed limits are set on state roads after a two-step process.

First, traffic operations engineers from the Agency of Transportation conduct an engineering study and make a recommendation to the state’s three-member Transportation Committee, consisting of the secretary of the Agency of Transportation, the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety — or their designees.

The committee holds roughly three public meetings a year to discuss and vote on any speed limit changes. Town officials initiate the process by sending a written request for speed limit review to the Agency of Transportation.

Read: You Paid Your Speeding Ticket. Here's Where Your Money Went.

According to Amy Gamble, traffic operations engineer with the Agency of Transportation, testimony from town officials and residents often influences committee decisions.

“In cases where the town or citizens choose not to attend the meeting," Gamble said, "the traffic committee almost always will simply accept the traffic operations recommendation.” However, she said, when testimony is given, the committee will “very often set the speed limit in accordance to what the town has requested.”

Engineering Studies

The Vermont Agency of Transportation conducts speed engineering studies according to the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

MUTCD recommends the following:

When a speed limit within a speed zone is posted, it should be within 5 mph of the 85th-percentile speed of free-flowing traffic. ... Other factors that may be considered when establishing or reevaluating speed limits are the following: A. Road characteristics, shoulder condition, grade, alignment, and sight distance; B. The pace; C. Roadside development and environment; D. Parking practices and pedestrian activity; and E. Reported crash experience for at least a 12-month period.

This report comes from VPR's investigative reporting desk. VPR is committed to investigative journalism as part of its mission of public service. Have a tip for the investigative reporting desk? Send an email to VPR reporter/editor Emily Corwin.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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