Slow it down D.C., other area ju­ris­dic­tions eye lower speed lim­its

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY LUZ LAZO

Ju­ris­dic­tions across the United States, in­clud­ing those in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, are em­brac­ing lower speed lim­its as the key to re­vers­ing the re­cent rise in traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties.

Their ef­forts in­clude low­er­ing de­fault speed lim­its and those in ma­jor cor­ri­dors, and cre­at­ing slow-driv­ing zones in ar­eas with heavy pedes­trian traf­fic.

Low­er­ing speeds is a fun­da­men­tal strat­egy for com­mu­ni­ties that are part of “Vi­sion Zero,” a pro­gram aimed at elim­i­nat­ing traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties and se­ri­ous in­juries. Lo­cally, the District, Alexan­dria and Mont­gomery County have taken the “zero” pledge, join­ing a grow­ing num­ber of cities that have made the com­mit­ment in ar­eas where driv­ers are in­creas­ingly shar­ing the road with bi­cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans. New York, Bos­ton and Seat­tle are among cities na­tion­wide that have adopted the pro­gram.

Of­fi­cials in the ju­ris­dic­tions say pri­or­i­tiz­ing safety over speed or con­ve­nience is cru­cial to meet­ing their goal. Ac­cord­ing to re­search, if a ve­hi­cle hits a pedes­trian while trav­el­ing at 20 mph, the vic­tim has a more than 90 per­cent chance of sur­viv­ing. But if the ve­hi­cle is trav­el­ing 50 mph, the sur­vival like­li­hood drops to 25 per­cent.

“We know it’s the speed that kills,” said Leah Shahum, founder of the Vi­sion Zero Net­work, a cam­paign sup­port­ing cities that have adopted the ap­proach. “Peo­ple make mis­takes; hu­mans are fal­li­ble. There will still be traf­fic crashes. But if they do so at a lower speed, the like­li­hood of walk­ing away with a bro­ken an­kle or an in­jury that is sur­viv­able is dra­mat­i­cally greater than if there is high speed in­volved.”

The re­cent uptick in traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties af­ter a years-long de­cline, com­bined with the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of pedes­tri­ans and bi­cy­clists be­ing killed in the crashes, has added a sense of ur­gency to the mission, of­fi­cials say.

Road deaths in the United States in­creased 6 per­cent in 2016, reach­ing more than 40,000 for the first time in a decade, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the Na­tional Safety Coun­cil. Traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties had been de­clin­ing sig­nif­i­cantly since the 1970s as a re­sult of safer ve­hi­cles and in­creased en­force­ment of laws on drunken and im­paired driv­ing and the use of seat belts.

Re­searchers at­tribute the re­cent in­crease mostly to the im­proved econ­omy and lower gas prices, which have led to more peo­ple driv­ing for work and plea­sure. In the Wash­ing­ton area, the in­creases have not been as dra­matic as those na­tion­wide, but of­fi­cials are con­cerned about the grow­ing num­ber of deaths in­volv­ing pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists.

The District has com­mit­ted to end traf­fic-re­lated deaths by 2024, with a plan that low­ers the de­fault speed limit to 20 mph from 25 on some neigh­bor­hood streets and cre­at­ing 15 mph zones from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on road­ways around schools, parks, and se­nior and youth cen­ters. The city also has pro­posed rais­ing the penalty for ex­ces­sive speed­ing to $500.

Mont­gomery County is press­ing the state to al­low it to cut the de­fault speed limit to 25 mph from 30 and wants to lower the limit in some neigh­bor­hoods to 20 mph.

Alexan­dria low­ered the de­fault speed limit in some neigh­bor­hoods by 10 mph last year to 25, and the city is study­ing re­duc­ing speed lim­its in ar­eas where speed is con­sis­tently a factor in crashes.

“The faster you are go­ing over 20 miles per hour, the more likely the per­son that you hit is go­ing to die. There is no ques­tion that re­duc­ing speed im­proves safety,” said Michael Far­rell, a se­nior trans­porta­tion plan­ner at the Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments. “The mes­sage out there is to slow down.”

But the ap­proach is not without crit­ics. Some say cities are us­ing traf­fic data to jus­tify rak­ing in mil­lions in traf­fic fines. Oth­ers con­tend that the pro­pos­als go too far, ar­gu­ing that low­er­ing speeds too much has a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on travel times. Why, for ex­am­ple, set a 15 mph limit around schools when the fa­cil­i­ties are closed, they say.

John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-At­lantic, said lower speed lim­its could lead to un­safe lane changes and more crashes as mo­torists try to get around slower-mov­ing ve­hi­cles. Driv­ers also fear, he said, that fur­ther re­duc­tions to the posted speed lim­its “will en­gen­der the pro­lif­er­a­tion of speed cam­eras,” and turn city roads into “speed traps.”

In the District, where of­fi­cials have pro­posed new and sig­nif­i­cantly higher fines for a va­ri­ety of traf­fic of­fenses as part of the city’s Vi­sion Zero plan, pub­lic back­lash stalled the plan for a year. Crit­ics ac­cuse the city of waging war on driv­ers.

City of­fi­cials say the goal is to pro­tect all road users. In 2015, 15 of the 26 peo­ple killed in traf­fic crashes were pedes­tri­ans, data shows. The num­ber of pedes­tri­ans killed last year de­creased to nine, but there were more to­tal fa­tal­i­ties, at 28. In many of the cases, au­thor­i­ties say, speed was a factor.

Vi­sion Zero cities also are re­design­ing roads built for mo­tor ve­hi­cles to make them safer for other users. The District, for ex­am­ple, has re­duced some lanes to add pro­tected bike lanes, and it has widened some side­walks. District of­fi­cials also are push­ing for more au­to­mated en­force­ment to tar­get traf­fic vi­o­la­tors, chiefly speed­ers.

The city op­er­ates 171 traf­fic cam­eras, ac­cord­ing to D.C. po­lice: 107 that mon­i­tor speed, 48 to catch red-light run­ners, eight at stop signs, and eight to de­tect ve­hi­cles that are above size and weight lim­its. The orig­i­nal Vi­sion Zero ac­tion plan called for the de­ploy­ment of up to 100 ad­di­tional cam­eras by Oc­to­ber 2017, though of­fi­cials later said the mayor’s fi­nal plan would not spec­ify a num­ber.

Ad­vo­cates say the strate­gies work. Two decades af­ter launch­ing its Vi­sion Zero ini­tia­tive, Swe­den is known to have the world’s safest roads. And there is grow­ing ev­i­dence that the move­ment has had a pos­i­tive im­pact in the three years since it started in the United States.

In New York, the first state to adopt the pro­gram, traf­fic deaths declined for three con­sec­u­tive years, down 23 per­cent over­all, ac­cord­ing to city data. The pro­gram is in use in about two dozen cities na­tion­wide.

Lo­cally, Alexan­dria and Mont­gomery are just start­ing to hash out de­tailed strate­gies on en­force­ment, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, street en­gi­neer­ing and data col­lec­tion. In the District, two years af­ter Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) an­nounced the city’s com­mit­ment, a two-year ac­tion plan spelled out goals to create safe streets, pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble road users and pre­vent danger­ous driv­ing. A year af­ter that plan was re­leased, how­ever, it’s un­clear how many of the dead­lines have been met. The an­nual progress re­port that was due in Oc­to­ber won’t be re­leased for an­other few weeks, city of­fi­cials said.

A na­tional strat­egy on high­way safety, “To­ward Zero Deaths,” was rolled out in 2015. Wash­ing­ton-area ju­ris­dic­tions have sup­ported a re­gional cam­paign that pro­motes road safety. In some ju­ris­dic­tions, au­thor­i­ties have got­ten creative — for ex­am­ple, send­ing po­lice of­fi­cers dressed like home­less peo­ple out to catch peo­ple tex­ting while driv­ing.

“But there is more that we can do,” Mont­gomery County Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Roger Ber­liner said a year ago when an­nounc­ing the county’s “zero” pledge. “It is time to stop think­ing of these fa­tal­i­ties as ac­ci­dents. These are crashes that we can and must act to pre­vent. We must say to us, zero is our goal.”

Long-term suc­cess, of­fi­cials say, re­quires cities to com­mit earnestly to the goal, us­ing data to drive changes in pol­icy and em­pha­siz­ing ed­u­ca­tion and en­force­ment.

“We know that not ev­ery­one un­der­stands why we do make these changes,” said Yon Lam­bert, Alexan­dria’s trans­porta­tion chief. But they are part of the shift from think­ing that traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties are un­avoid­able tragedies. Vi­sion Zero may not erad­i­cate all crashes, but it can help cut down on the deadly ones, he said.

“We know that we have a lot of work to get there,” he said.


A mir­ror shows 14th Street NW in the District on a rainy week­day last month. The city has made a com­mit­ment to end traf­fic-re­lated deaths by 2024.

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