By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN When traveling northwest on Highway 12 through Cokato, drivers may have already noticed the speed limit increase from 45 mph to 50 mph.
The change occurred roughly a month ago, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) studied the speeds of cars moving along the entire highway including the stretch before coming into town.
Using radar guns to monitor 100 vehicles, the department found that even though the posted speed limit was 45 mph, about 85 percent were driving 50 or 51 mph.
Project manager Claudia Dumont attributed this to drivers making speed decisions based on the road’s surroundings: if the space is wider, drivers tend to travel at higher speeds, while they slow down in narrower settings.
In response to the data, the department increased the limit to what most drivers were already traveling.
Some of the public, however, did not agree with MnDOT’s decision, fearing the speed change would encourage drivers to go even faster along the stretch.
To test this, MnDOT surveyed another 100 cars July 7 where the speed limit had been increased.
During the Highway 12 Safety Coalition meeting later that day, Dumont reported that the results showed drivers are actually keeping average speeds the same, rather than increasing them.
“If everyone is driving at 50, we post at 50,” stated Dumont. “Then you have consistency. It makes more sense.”
Dumont’s husband, Tom, the district traffic engineer, stated that speed consistency and unity is what helps ensure safer roads, not necessarily lower speed limits.
He said when drivers actually vary their speeds above, below, or at the speed limit the chance of an accident increases as passing becomes more common, along with cars getting rear-ended.
In the case of Hwy 12, Tom stated, MnDOT let the people “vote” for the speed limit based on the speeds they were already traveling, in this case about 50 mph.
He said the consistency the department sought was achieved, as the second speed test showed almost 100 percent of the drivers were now traveling at the posted speed, not above it.
According to Tom Dumont, when looking strictly at the data, the roadway is actually safer now, because almost everyone is moving at the same pace.
The engineer also noted that the Cokato stretch has the lowest accident count along Hwy 12, and the speed change is meant to help keep it that way.
Leaving out the city
The City of Cokato stated that it was neither consulted nor notifyfied by MnDot before the roadway speed was increased.
City Administrator Annita Smythe expressed the city’s disappointment in not being included in the decision, “particularly given our ongoing safety concerns about people speeding through town.”
When asked about it, Tom Dumont said that as the department went through the process, and exchanged information with various parties, the City of Cokato was left out of the conversation by mistake.
Smythe said she had received a “handful” of complaints shortly following the increase, but they have since dwindled.
“Residents seem to understand that the road is a state roadway, and that the city did not participate in the decision to increase speeds,” she stated.
MnDOT officials have discussed the incident, and will continue to monitor the situation should further concerns arise.
As it stands, the speed change was made to match Hwy 12 drivers’ average speeds, and traffic seems to now be moving in a more unified formation, according to Claudia and Tom Dumont.
“We do keep looking at things. We hear you. We hear the complaints, but we also have to be realistic, and we can’t post something if people aren’t going to drive it,” Claudia Dumont stated.
For more information on Minnesota speed limits and how they are determined, visit www.dot.state.mn.us/speed/index.html.