Speed Limit Authority

The genesis of this case begins with the Selectmen’s “original sin” of erecting motor vehicle speed limit signs purporting to set forth a speed limit duly established by a special speed regulation.  But, they chose not to apply to MassDOT and the Registrar for their certification in writing that such regulation is consistent with the public interests.  This circumvention is at odds with the enabling statute, G.L. c. 90, § 18, and thus without any legitimate authority (“ultra vires”).

G.L. c. 90, § 18, as amended through St. 1986, c. 689, §§ 8-9, entitled “Special regulations, speed and use of vehicles,” confers the authority to make special speed regulations, and provides in pertinent part: “[T]he board of selectmen … may make special regulations as to the speed of motor vehicles …”.  Id.  It is a statute of long-standing, having been enacted “shortly after motor vehicles had begun to come into use, and at a time when they were frowned upon in many localities.”  M & M Transp. Co. v. Town of Wellesley (citing Commonwealth v. Newhall).

To clearly circumscribe and undoubtedly curb the historical tendency of many localities to abuse this authority, the statute “has always contained provisions subjecting action taken under it to some degree of control by a State board.”  Id.; G.L. c. 90, § 18 (“no such [speed] regulation shall be effective … until after … the department and the registrar, acting jointly, shall have certified in writing that such regulation is consistent with the public interests”).