Before 1966, according to Chad Dornsife of the Nevada chapter of the National Motorists Association, "Local officials in this country would place speed limits at their whim. But starting in 1966 Congress said ... there is no authority in the federal statutes for political use of stop signs and posted speed limits. You can send out an engineer and they can report back their recommendations for the most appropriate limit for the conditions ... (but) whatever the number on a speed limit sign, the law requires an engineering study to support that value."
Dornsife says all 50 states sign on to obey that requirement when they accept federal highway funds.
And states which generally obey those guidelines -- like Montana and California -- have found accidents and traffic deaths actually fall when they allow engineers to set speed limits at often-higher "public consensus speeds," Dornsife reports.
"In Montana they took away all (speed) limits once you leave the citylimits, and the fatalities went to an all-time low. What happens is, once there's an expectation of higher speed, there's higher seat belt usage; slower traffic was keeping right. They had month after month with zero fatalities with no speed limits."
Here in the West, in fact, most accidents are caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel because it takes too long to travel between major cities, Dornsife explains. "In Nevada more than 70 percent of serious accidents are single car accidents -- sleep-deficit-fatigue is the number one cause."
Also effectively banned under the 1966 federal law are "school zones" which become speed traps at night -- a huge revenue source for motorcycle cops nailing unsuspecting motorists who fail to drop their speed quickly enough to avoid "endangering" hypothetical midnight "schoolchildren."
"The federal law says the speed limit shall only be in effect when the hazard is present, so any case where a speed limit still drops late at night because of a school nearby, the federal law would make that a (banned) speed trap. ..."
But enforcement of inappropriate speed limits is big business for courts and police, of course.
"The courts live off this revenue," Dornsife confirms. "In Mina, halfway between Las Vegas and Reno near Hawthorne, it turned out the judge owned the radar unit that the county sheriff was using there. ... Prior to the national speed limit, the budget for the (Nevada) Highway Patrol was $3.5 million; now it's $40 million; so this a threat to their existence."
What's a threat?
Well, if you haven't noticed, the speed limits in a lot of states -- including Nevada -- haven't really been working in the sensible way mandated by Congress.
"Our state director of transportation, Tom Stephens, has said by decree, just based on his personal opinion, that in 80 percent of the cases when the engineers come back and say (a proposed speed limit) is not justified, he says 'Do it anyway.' "
As a result, when Reno driver Russell Gronert went to traffic court earlier this year to challenge a speeding ticket, arguing that traffic engineers were unable to provide any required engineering study justifying the speed limit in question, he got the same result every other Nevadan has been encountering for the past 34 years -- the prosecutor and the court refused to even admit the lack of the required engineering study into evidence: Guilty as charged.
But then something new and different happened. Mr. Gronert, it turns out, is a member of the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, which encourages its members to plead innocent and fight speeding tickets (membership $29 per year; dial 1-800-SPEED-TRAP; web site National Motorists Association http://www.motorists.com/
So Mr. Gronert, deciding to appeal his conviction, was referred to Mr.Dornsife.
"I'm not a lawyer; I donate my time. But if someone is willing to fight a case, we will help them do that," Dornsife explains. "I write the briefs, and then I let people pick and choose what they want to use -- there was no attorney, he did it pro per with materials I gave him."
And on June 19, Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer ruled in driver Gronert's favor, remanding his case back to the lower court, which is now under orders to admit into evidence the fact that there is no required engineering study offering scientific support for the speed limit in question.
"This sets a precedent in Washoe County, it becomes the law there," Dornsife explains. "But more importantly, throughout Nevada, where speed limits are clearly illegally set ... this is the first case where we've taken it to the appellate level and the appellate court has agreed there is a standard that must be met. So on any citation now, you can open up the question, 'Was this a justified traffic control device where the study was done properly?' "
Mr. Dornsife's strictly amateur, non-lawyerly advice?
"The very first thing they have to do before they go to court is ask the local traffic engineer for the traffic study, the one that was done that supports the posted limit. Then they can call us; we can see if the study supports the posted limit or not. But if there is no study at all then the court has to throw it out because the federal law says there has to be a study; there is no exception."
Mr. Dornsife can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and expect him to be very busy.