173 mph on the JFX? DOT claims it happened around 5 p.m. on a calm winter day
We tracked down the actual study Baltimore is citing to justify the installation of six speed cameras on I-83 and road-tested the data
Above: Site of the speed study: Southbound lanes of the Jones Falls Expressway at the 41st Street bridge. (Mark Reutter)
Last week’s jaw-dropping statement to the Board of Estimates that a test speed camera had caught a vehicle zipping along the Jones Falls Expressway at 173 mph near the Pepsi sign in Woodberry made news across the regional media, including at The Brew.
That and other “ridiculously high speed numbers,” in the words of Baltimore’s Director of Transportation Steve Sharkey, persuaded Mayor Brandon Scott and the spending board to add $6.6 million to a contract with American Traffic Solutions to install six speed cameras (two for enforcement and four to warn motorists of excessive speeds) on the highway and to perform other work.
As much as $20 million a year will be collected by catching these speeders, Sharkey acknowledged, while repeatedly telling the board that “the total goal” of the program is to improve safety and reduce the number of accidents.
“All the revenue goes directly back into 83 and 83-related expenses. So it’s a win for improving safety on 83 both short and long term,” he said.
Crunching the Numbers
The Brew wondered about the contents of the study, whose alarming “marquee” statistics – 42% of drivers exceeded the posted speed limit by 12 mph and 28% by 15 mph or more – were disclosed at the meeting. The study itself was never published.
Could vehicles, including motorcycles, (the type of conveyance was not specified in the study) actually reach NASCAR race thresholds on a notoriously twisty road, which often slows to a crawl during rush hour?
Here’s what our examination disclosed.
The eight-day test took place in pre-Covid times between March 5 and 12, 2020. The test camera was placed at the 41st Street bridge, north of the Pepsi sign, to survey southbound JFX traffic.
Drilling down through the tens of thousands of numbers compilid by vendor ATS, we found the 173 mph speed, but not without quite a bit of effort.
We did find reference to a 173 mile speed under the 41st Street bridge, but it took a revised data file from DOT to discover it.
In fact, the first set of numbers we received from DOT cited the 173 mph figure on a March 11 summary sheet, but it could not be located in the raw data.
We queried DOT about the time gaps in the data set, figuring that might explain why the number was missing.
DOT chief of staff Adrea Turner said the data we received was complete, but there were several instances during the test period when the camera was down, sometimes for hours, for maintenance.
5 p.m on 12/2/21: DOT has given The Brew what it now says is the complete database that corresponds to the fastest daily speeds noted in the report’s summary. DOT spokeswoman Marly Cardona-Moz said that in an effort to supply the information in a timely manner, some parts of the file were not included.
The new data show that about 25 more cars sped over 100 mph among the 360,984 vehicles whose speeds were recorded. “A mistake was made, but it was not intentional,” Cardona-Moz said, “and we believe the complete data supports DOT’s presentation [to the BOE] and justifies the speed cameras.”
Asked then why the data file contained no speed above 101 mph on the day in question, Turner responded by sending a revised version of the file.
She said some data had been “accidentally deleted in the last file that was watermarked with ‘confidential’ during the formatting effort.”
The new file did list the 173 mph speed – on the very first page – together with 12 other triple-digit speeds not revealed in the previous file.
According to the new information, the extraordinary speed was attained during rush hour (5 and 6 p.m.) on March 11.
On the same day, a 131 mph speed was captured between 6 and 7 p.m., and 138 mph was recorded between 12 noon and 1 p.m.
Overall, however, The Brew found that the raw data did not match the “fastest” speeds listed in the report’s summary sheets in four of the eight test days.
CORRECTION: The new complete data from DOT show the following:
A top speed of 144 mph on March 12.
A top speed of 136 mph on March 10.
A top speed of 106 mph on March 5.
Nearly all of these speeds occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. And they often took place in clusters, indicating that organized racing occurred when city police were noticeably absent from the highway.
For example, between 4 and 5 a.m. on Friday, March 6, nearly 30 vehicles darted beneath the 41st Street Bridge at speeds of over 89 mph.
One car achieved 118 mph, according to the test camera, and another 98 mph. A few hours earlier on the same morning, a half dozen vehicles flew by at or near 100 mph.
Even in the dead of night, many more cars rolled under the bridge at 60 mph or less than sprinted past at 75 mph or more.
Sharkey’s emphasis on high speeds cloaked the fact that more than half of the vehicles recorded during the eight-day period traveled at 55 mph or under. (The posted speed is 50 mph.)
No doubt, some of the “lawful” speeds were the result of daytime congestion that naturally slows, and sometimes stops, the vehicular stream.
But even in the dead of night, when traffic is light, many more cars rolled under the bridge at 60 mph or less than sprinted past at 75 mph or more.
Rocket on Wheels
Which brings up the question of whether “regular” vehicles can achieve triple-digit speeds?
Yes, says Road and Truck magazine, which recently listed 25 cars capable of breaking the 150-mph barrier. They included the Subaru SVX, BMW 330i, Chevrolet Corvette, Audi S4, Nissan Turbo, Pontiac GTO and the V-12-powered Mercedes S-Class.
But could any conveyance – two, four or other wheeled – reach 173 mph in the short span of straightaway (about 2/3 mile) through Woodberry before the JFX swings into a pair of S curves?
Yes, according to DOT. That feat was achieved by one of 360,984 surveyed vehicles, heading south, at or near 5 p.m., on a calm winter weekday.