Reduced speeds common this year

It’s an anonymous Valentine’s Day present, but the recipients – not the donor – are the unknowns.

Inspired by a big snowstorm on Feb. 14, 2007, PennDOT in 2009 began imposing temporary speed limits on major highways equipped with electronic signboards when the weather turns heartless.

The department has to love the results – as would motorists who’ve benefited, if they could know who they are: The restrictions have reduced crashes by a third, and when there’s 4 or more inches of snow, by half, according to District 9 spokeswoman Tara Callahan-Henry.

“Impressive,” said Mid-Atlantic American Automobile Association spokeswoman Jenny Robinson, when told of the statistics.

In Blair County, PennDOT lowered the speed limit to 45 mph twice in 2011 and once in 2012.

This year, although the area isn’t close to putting a bow on winter, the department has presented a bouquet of restrictions, imposing them a total of six times locally on Interstates 99 and 70 and on four-lane sections of Routes 22 and 219, Callahan-Henry said.

She struggled to explain why the temporary restrictions work so well.

“I think it gives some people something else to think about,” she said.

The department imposes the restrictions only after local officials take account of reports from local road crews, county dispatchers, video from highway cameras and weather reports, and only after consulting with an Incident Command Center in Harrisburg, which comprises officials from PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and state police, Callahan-Henry said.

The officials rate roadway conditions on a scale of 1 to 6 – clear to impassable, Callahan-Henry said.

“Usually, when conditions are at a 3, which is snow- and/ or slush-covered, is when we implement the speed restrictions,” she said.

In addition to posting the restrictions on electronic signboards, PennDOT posts them on its website and its Twitter account and sends out news releases in the expectation local media will disseminate them.

The Turnpike Commission has imposed bad-weather speed limits within the past decade, out of concern for the safety of maintenance crews, as well as other motorists, said commission spokeswomen Renee Vid Colborn.

Crews, their supervisors, operations personnel, state police and senior staffers make the decisions to impose the limits for 6 inches or more of snow, half an inch of ice, winds of more than 40 mph, rain at the rate of an inch an hour or other problem conditions, she said.

The commission uses electronic signs, dedicated radio station 1640 AM, the emergency notification system, the Turnpike website, the smartphone app TRIP Talk, email, text messages, a toll-free phone line, travel boards in plazas and press releases, she said.

Like PennDOT for this area, the commission has imposed lower limits this year six times, sometimes for the entire 550-mile Turnpike system.

Police can adjust their speeding-ticket trigger points for the lower limits, according to Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for state police headquarters in Harrisburg.

But they more often resort to alternative citations, like driving too fast for conditions or following too closely, according to Reed, or careless driving, added Trooper David McGarvey, a spokesman for Troop G.

“Whatever the officer feels comfortable with,” McGarvey said.

One potential defense against a regular speeding ticket based on a reduced speed limit would be an ignorance claim – although the law requires motorists to be aware even of the temporary restrictions, McGarvey said.

Still, “there are people who aren’t going to know,” Callahan-Henry said, noting that many people now listen to satellite – not local radio – in their vehicles.

Neither of the two magisterial district judges in Altoona recall cases of regular speeding tickets filed for violation of a temporary limit.

Officers might counter claims of ignorance, by noting that a motorist has passed an electronic sign, based on where they’re coming from, McGarvey said.

Officers are most concerned about safety and may hesitate to stop a driver in a storm if there’s a chance it would create a hazardous situation, so most citations during storms are written after crashes or after motorists need to be towed out of snowbanks or medians, the officers said.

That usually creates the presumption of a violation, although there are exceptions, like the black ice that caused crashes on I-80 recently, Reed said.

“You have to be in control of your vehicle and drive at a speed at which you can operate it safely,” Reed said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.