Lower speed limit not a panacea for traffic deaths

Our view: City Council needs to take it slow on lowering speed limits — to at least consider other ways to upgrade pedestrian safety

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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