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Council member seeks to slash Baltimore speed limits to save pedestrians

Drivers would have to slow down to 25 mph on Baltimore’s main thoroughfares under a proposal from a City Council member who wants to protect pedestrians from what he calls a “lethal environment.”

The bill that Ryan Dorsey introduced Monday at the council’s meeting would also impose a 20 mph limit on side streets. It’s supported by 10 of the council’s 15 members.

Dorsey cited research that shows people on foot are much more likely to survive being hit by vehicles traveling at lower speeds, as well as the city’s reputation for bad driving.

About 12 pedestrians are killed each year on Baltimore’s streets and another 900 are seriously injured, according to the city’s Department of Transportation.

Currently, state law caps speed limits in business districts and on undivided highways in residential areas at 30 mph. Divided highways in residential areas are subject to 35 mph limits. Local authorities have the power to increase or reduce those limits if they conduct traffic studies.

The legislation proposed by Dorsey would set the 25 and 20 mph limits, as well as a 15 mph cap in alleyways, and allow the transportation department to set different limits temporarily.

Among the streets where the speed limit would drop to 25 mph are Harford Road, Martin Luther King Boulevard and York Road.

Ragina Cooper Averella, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, whose membership includes more than 975,000 Maryland drivers, urged the city to use engineering and traffic surveys when setting speed limits.

“Before the city moves forward with such an initiative, particularly on main arteries into the city, we would hope that more research is conducted,” Averella said in a statement. “Lowering speed limits on main thoroughfares may not necessarily be in the best interest of traffic safety and congestion.”

She also said that in light of the city’s extensive speed camera program — which is expected to collect $21.2 million in revenue this year from fines — she is worried about drivers “being cited due to artificially lowered speed limits on primary roadways.”

Dorsey said the legislation was not aimed at raking in fines.

“I am interested in people driving the speed limit no matter what it is,” he said, “and what it is, is too high.”

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who had not signed on as a co-sponsor, questioned whether lowering the speed limits was the most effective way of making the roads safer.

“You want to know what the cost benefit is going to be,” Schleifer said.

Anticipating complaints from commuters about the idea, Dorsey said safety had to be prioritized.

“Often that’s going to come into conflict with certain people’s convenience, but we have a duty to make the right decision,” he said. “Safety should win out over convenience every time.”

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business and civic leaders in the region, said making downtown areas with the highest volumes of traffic safe for pedestrians was critical.

“We’re certainly concerned about public safety for pedestrians, as well as people operating motor vehicles and want to be supportive of whatever reasonable steps can be taken to reduce accidents and injury,” Fry said.

But Fry said the group would need more time to analyze the bill — which streets it would affect, and how — before supporting or opposing it.

The city’s transportation director declined to say whether she supported lowering the speed limits.

“Our goal is to make city streets safer for all users of the transportation network,” said director Michelle Pourciau. “DOT is committed to working closely with the City Council to ensure efforts to improve traffic mitigation solutions for everyone that lives and travels in the City of Baltimore.”

City Department of Transportation spokesman German Vigil said the agency is in favor of the idea but wants to further discuss the details — including whether studies are required before altering speed limits.

“We like the concept,” Vigil said. “We want to find out more details.”

Dorsey also introduced a measure legalizing playing in the street. Currently, it can be handled as either a criminal misdemeanor that carries a $5 fine or a civil infraction carrying a $50 penalty.

Many cities have signed up to a Vision Zero movement aimed at eliminating serious traffic injuries and fatalities. Baltimore joined in 2016, promising no fatalities by 2030.

To help meet their goals, some cities have reduced speed limits in recent years, including Boston, New York and Portland. In 2016, Seattle imposed changes similar to those being proposed in Baltimore. The Seattle Times reported that even a year after the switch, the new limits were causing confusion among city drivers.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, the first colleague to sign on to Dorsey’s proposal, said Baltimore needs to join the other cities.

“This is doable and it is documented to be effective in slowing speeds,” she said. “People will adjust to it and they will be safer for it.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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