Can you drive 25?

Low­er­ing speed lim­its alone won’t solve pedes­trian death prob­lem

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Our view:

The num­ber of pedes­tri­ans killed in traf­fic has been on the rise in re­cent years even as traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties gen­er­ally have not. There are any num­ber of rea­sons for this trend, which only de­vel­oped in the last decade. More peo­ple are driv­ing (and walk­ing) dis­tracted. There’s more ev­i­dence of drugged driv­ing. Big­ger, heav­ier ve­hi­cles in­clud­ing SUVs — which have a cor­re­spond­ing larger im­pact in a crash — have be­come more com­mon­place. At least those are the lead­ing the­o­ries.

And this is no small mat­ter. In 2009, there were 4,109 pedes­trian deaths in the United States. Last year, there were nearly 6,000. Bal­ti­more has not been im­mune. About a dozen peo­ple are killed each year on city streets with another 900 se­ri­ously in­jured. There are any num­ber of strate­gies for re­duc­ing the fa­tal­ity rate that have been rec­om­mended by safety ex­perts from ad­just­ing the tim­ing of sig­nals to cre­at­ing pedes­trian is­lands, up­grad­ing street light­ing, in­stalling traf­fic calm­ing de­vices like speed humps and greater en­force­ment, in­clud­ing de­vices like speed cam­eras. There’s even been a push for more “share the road” pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion cam­paigns.

Yet that’s not where the Bal­ti­more City Coun­cil seems headed. This week, leg­is­la­tion was in­tro­duced to lower the speed lim­its on city streets to 25 and 20 mph. That rep­re­sents as much as a 10 mph re­duc­tion. The pro­posal even has some mo­men­tum with 10 of 15 City Coun­cil mem­bers sign­ing on as co-spon­sors of Coun­cil­man Ryan Dorsey’s plan.

Mr. Dorsey’s think­ing is this: Ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing at slower speeds are less likely to pro­duce lethal ef­fects in crashes. That is ab­so­lutely true. It’s just a mat­ter of physics. A two-ton SUV strik­ing a hu­man be­ing — or any­thing else — at a sub­stan­tially lower rate of speed will have a less harm­ful ef­fect. That might not spare all lives, but it might spare some. The slower speeds also give driv­ers more time to re­act to their cir­cum­stances — to hit the brakes be­cause there’s some­one in the street ahead of them, for ex­am­ple.

Clearly, there are ex­am­ples where this has proven help­ful. Lon­don dropped speed lim­its in res­i­den­tial ar­eas and saw pedes­trian death and injury rates fall by more than one-third. More re­cently, New York low­ered city­wide speed lim­its from 30 mph to 25 mph. But what would hap­pen if the speed lim­its are dropped uni­formly city­wide in Bal­ti­more, which doesn’t have the tran­sit al­ter­na­tives of New York or Lon­don? What would be the real world im­pact?

When traf­fic isn’t con­gested, do Bal­ti­more driv­ers stick to speed lim­its now? Are ma­jor thor­ough­fares like Cold Spring Lane or Har­ford Road un­ac­cus­tomed to driv­ers obey­ing the speed limit (aside from when they are in view of en­force­ment cam­eras)? Lower the speed limit on a di­vided road and you could eas­ily pro­duce more ag­gres­sive driv­ing — more driv­ers weav­ing around those who obey the law be­cause their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with four-lane-plus-shoul­der open roads is that they can safely move much faster than 25 mph.

Clearly, just switch­ing out signs won’t do the job. Does the City Coun­cil en­vi­sion a broader crack­down on speed­ing by po­lice of­fi­cers pulling over more ve­hi­cles and writ­ing more tick­ets? What about drugged and drunk driv­ing? What about dis­tracted driv­ing? Per­haps the chief dan­ger here is not that Bal­ti­more’s new speed lim­its could prove un­wieldy (al­though the im­pact on rush hour com­mut­ing de­serves to be con­sid­ered), it’s that they’ll be seen as a panacea for a much more com­pli­cated prob­lem. A ve­hi­cle driv­ing 5 miles per hour can still prove lethal if the driver is busy tex­ting or doesn’t no­tice the pedes­trian be­cause the light­ing is bad or the cross­walk isn’t marked.

That’s not to sug­gest there might not be spe­cific streets where re­duc­ing the speed limit isn’t a wel­come idea. But do­ing so uni­formly and with­out greater study and care, par­tic­u­larly in a city as car-de­pen­dent as Bal­ti­more, strikes us as im­pru­dent and po­ten­tially counter-pro­duc­tive. Bet­ter to de­velop a broader strat­egy for re­duc­ing pedes­trian and bi­cy­cle-re­lated ac­ci­dents, in­juries and deaths, per­haps with a pi­lot pro­ject on thor­ough­fares that have proven to be prob­lem­atic in the past. Like bike lanes, this needs to be de­vel­oped with neigh­bor­hood sup­port and trans­parency.

Bal­ti­more’s streets did not be­come more dan­ger­ous for pedes­tri­ans over the last decade be­cause speed lim­its were in­creased. But low­er­ing them could be part of the so­lu­tion. It’s time to bring in a traf­fic safety con­sul­tant to de­vise a more com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to mak­ing those streets safer.

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