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New Lower Speed Limits Near NJ Schools: Safety or Speed Traps?

A sign announcing a temporary school zone speed limit in Hopewell Township, Mercer County. (Google Maps)
A sign announcing a temporary school zone speed limit in Hopewell Township, Mercer County. (Google Maps)

TRENTON — Speed limits on roads near schools may be lowered if a bill advanced Thursday by an Assembly committee makes into law.

The bill would allow counties and municipalities to create permanent lower speed limits in school zones, rather than ones that only take effect during certain times when schools are in session. The state would be allowed to do the same on its roads, if local officials request it.

Lawmakers dropped a portion of the plan that would have tripled fines for speeding in a school zone. Currently, fines can be doubled if a person is driving 45 mph or faster though a school zone when there are children present.

“This gives us an opportunity to protect children and give municipal officials an opportunity to do the right thing for their communities,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee.

Janna Chernetz, director of New Jersey policy for Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said New Jersey needs to make changes to improve safety on arterial roadways, the main roads with higher traffic that connect local streets to highways.

“These bills provide consistency, so that drivers know that ‘I am near a school and I need to slow down.’ There’s no question as to when to slow down. It is always slow down,” Chernetz said.

So far this year, 52 pedestrians have been killed in traffic accidents in New Jersey. Over the last three years, an average of 170 a year have been killed – the highest level in 20 years.

Chernetz said the fatality and injury rates for pedestrians in New Jersey are twice the national rate. She said pedestrians hit by cars going 40 mph or more have an 80 percent chance of dying, while those hit by cars at speeds of 25 mph or less have an 80 percent chance of surviving.

“This will improve the road not only for children but for all users,” Chernetz said.

The changes are motivated by the treacherous conditions on Route 130 in Burlington and Camden counties, a road that consistently ranks as New Jersey’s most dangerous for pedestrians, according to Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The bill – a substitute combining A4335, A4336 and A4337 – has been named “Antwan’s Law,” after Antwan Timbers Jr., a 17-year-old high school student killed walking on Route 130 in Burlington City a year ago. Critics of the proposal note Timbers was killed by a drunk driver at around midnight, which they say makes the school-zone location irrelevant.

“I do believe there are some issues, some problems with the bill,” said Assembly Robert Clifton, R-Monmouth. “I don’t believe this bill would have saved this young man, unfortunately, since drunk drivers rarely obey traffic speed limits or school signs.”

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, testified against the bill. He said the proposal is well-intentioned but would make school zones less safe because drivers would be more likely to ignore speed limits reduced 24 hours a day to a level far below what seems naturally comfortable.

“This bill, mark my words, is actually counterproductive. It will be destructive,” O’Scanlon said.

O’Scanlon called the plan “the speed trap proliferation bill” and said it would lead to drivers getting expensive tickets carrying four motor-vehicle points for driving at common-sense speeds that roads are designed to handle.

“This bill and its companion bills, passed in their current form, present an almost irresistible temptation to local officials to take advantage of their newfound power and, in the name of safety, of course, create dangerous arbitrary speed limit zones that instantly become potential speed traps and instantly become dramatically more dangerous,” O’Scanlon said.

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, said the state needs to examine the threats faced by pedestrians.

“Pedestrians are getting hit in this state. People in this state are driving out of control. I watch it every single day,” Oliver said.

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