Should Towns Reduce Speed Limits to 20 mph?

How can we reduce the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars in our communities?

Posted by Patch National Desk , May 06, 2014 at 02:00 PM

by Melinda Carstensen

More than 5,400 pedestrians and cyclists were killed in 2012 in the United States, most of them in the densely populated areas where cars and pedestrians compete for space. Another 125,000 were injured, many severely and many of them children and the elderly. 

An international movement that seeks to reduce pedestrian traffic fatalities in the United Kingdom is gaining speed in the U.S.

The campaign, “20’s Plenty for Us," encourages cities to reduce their speed limits to 20 mph in highly concentrated residential areas. Statistics show a pedestrian hit by a car going 20 mph has a 95 percent survival rate, compared with an 80 percent survival rate at 30 mph, the standard speed limit in many U.S. neighborhoods. Stopping distance for a car going 30 mph is nearly double that of a car going 20.

20’s Plenty says a 10 mph speed reduction has helped reduce fatalities by 22 percent in one U.K. city.

While overall traffic deaths in the U.S. have been declining over the last decade, pedestrian fatalities have remained stubbornly steady. Pedestrian safety advocates in the U.S. argue that it’s time to adopt the 20’s Plenty strategy for residential areas in this country.

Paul Steely White, executive director of New York City-based Transportation Alternatives, is working with the state’s department of transportation and safety commission to pass a bill that would allow New York cities to set speed limits on urban streets at 20 mph. 

“Regardless of residential density, slow-speed streets work to protect pedestrians and motorists alike,” White said. “I think there’s absolutely a relevance to this campaign for any area that’s looking to improve street safety, livability and public health.”

In New York, following the death of a 12-year-old boy on a street near a popular park, activists from a safe streets advocacy group called Right of Way posted 20 mph speed limit signs as a protest. The boy was killed chasing a soccer ball into the street, where the speed limit was 30 mph. 

The slower streets movement isn’t confined to New York City. Local governments in Arizona, South Dakota and Utah have passed similar measures. Washington state instituted a 20 mph speed limit for its urban roadways last year.

In some residential areas around the country, the speed limit exceeds even 30 mph. In Wethersfield, Conn., the speed limit in one residential area is 35 mph.

Wethersfield resident Petulia Pugliares’ home is between two elementary schools, and she said she has witnessed several near-misses when motorists weren’t paying attention or treated stop signs as optional.

Pugliares is a co-founder of the advocacy group “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here,” which distributes red signs bearing the group’s mantra. 

“I would definitely encourage a change,” she said, “and be pro-20 instead of 30. Or even 25. Anything would help.”

Rod King, founder and campaign director of 20’s Plenty, said in a phone interview that speed reductions in neighborhoods go beyond the benefit of saving lives. Slower speeds lead to quieter streets, lower air pollution rates, and better fuel efficiency. 

A common objection to lower speed limits is that they would substantially increase travel times. But King said the criticism doesn’t hold up. 

Most people live within a short distance of major arterial roads where faster speeds are allowed. For someone living a mile from a major artery, a speed limit reduction from 30 mph to 20 mph would add one minute of travel time.

Besides, argued King, “Any increase in journey time is irrelevant because it does not compare to the need to preserve human life.” 

White, who traveled to Albany this week with several busloads of supporters to meet with state legislators for the group’s “Take Action for 20” campaign, agreed.

“It’s about putting human lives before any perceived convenience,” he said. “There’s a lot of momentum building for this.”

What would you think about a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas near you? Do drivers in your community slow for pedestrians? Do you feel comfortable walking, running and letting your children play in nearby streets?

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