Lower speed limits protect public health and safety and set the stage for Neighborhood Greenways



Brian Fairbrother memorial ghost bike. From The Seattle Bike Blog.

Last year’s HR 1217, a state bill designed to make it easier for Washington cities to lower speed limits on non-arterial roadways, received bipartisan support in the House and passed unanimously – unanimously! – thanks to Shoreline’s Representative Cindy Ryu’s leadership. Alas, it stalled in the Senate.

This year, Rep. Ryu is again leading the charge and we are calling upon our legislators statewide to follow her lead to allow us to lower speed limits on chosen streets.

Here’s why I’ll be supporting it.

Vehicle speed is a public safety and a public health issue. Sure, we all like to get where we’re going fast. Perhaps more importantly, we all want to get where we’re going in one piece.

More than anything else, the speed of a vehicle – whether it hits a car, a pedestrian, or bicyclist – effects the outcome of a collision.

The chart below graphically shows a pedestrian’s chance of dying if hit by a motor vehicle by miles per hour. Gross, I admit. But as this graphic shows, the result will not be good – for any of us or our kids who are hit by a car going 40 miles an hour.

The just-released SDOT 2010 Traffic Report breaks out the details, but here’s a masterful summary that appeared in Crosscut, by Doug MacDonald, former secretary of transportation for Washington:

“The numbers are stark, starting with the death toll. In the three years 2008–2010, there were 62 traffic fatalities in Seattle. More than half involved pedestrians (25 deaths) and cyclists (7 deaths)… For just two years, 2009 and 2010, there were in addition serious injuries to 79 pedestrians and 32 cyclists, and hundreds of less serious injuries on top of those.”

62 traffic deaths in three years. All are tragic, and all are avoidable. As our public health leaders have stated, “Crashes happen for a reason. They are not accidents.”

 This past year has been another tough one for traffic fatalities. The deaths of Seattle cyclists Mike Wang, Brian Fairbrother and Robert Townsend focused attention on the safety on our streets – and vocal, widespread public concern was the impetus behind the Road Safety Summit that kicked off on Monday at City Hall.

Many Councilmembers joined the Mayor and Dr. David Fleming, Seattle and King County’s Director of Public Health, and an energetic roomful of citizens Monday night. We represent walkers, bicyclists, freight interests, and drivers (including a representative from AAA) who gathered to make specific recommendations about what we can do to improve conditions on our city roadways. You can join as well.  

Lowering our speed limits on our non-arterial streets , as promoted by Rep. Ryu, is one easy, inexpensive act we can take to improve safety for all of us. Slowing cars down a bit increases our chances of getting where we’re going, and it certainly makes our neighborhoods calmer, nicer places to live.

I’ve written extensively in this space on Neighborhood Greenways in the past, but the point I want to make here is that in every community I visit, people talk to me about how valuable it is to slow down cars passing through their neighborhoods.

They want to protect the residential character of their neighborhoods by making non-arterial, residential roads calmer and quieter, and make sure every one of us whether we’re seniors, juniors, joggers, or kids on bikes can safely make it across that street.

Current law requires cities in our state to undertake expensive and time-consuming speed and engineering studies before we can reduce our speed limits. HR 1217 will let us, like cities in Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, proceed with common-sense speed limits, help us get our Neighborhood Greenways in place, and make our residential roads calmer and quieter.

Supporting our state legislature’s efforts to allow cities to lower our speed limits on non-arterial roadways is something we can do to promote our safety and public health – and it’s a low-cost way to take action that works.

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