While there are many ways to make streets safer, managing speed must be at the top of the list for communities truly committed to Vision Zero — safety for all road users. Unsafe speeds cause an estimated 10,000 deaths a year in the U.S., an impact that extends well beyond those killed to the tens of thousands more family members, friends, colleagues and others affected by the preventable tragedies of road fatalities.
Frustratingly, managing speed has not received anywhere near the attention nor resources the issue deserves, despite the fact that speed-related incidents historically account for about one-third of traffic fatalities in this country. Still, urgency and action from leaders across the country have been lackluster at best and, in some instances, downright shameful, with some federal and state efforts in direct conflict with proven safety strategies.
The reality is that we know a lot about what works to slow speeds to safe levels, which results in fewer crashes and less severe crashes and injuries. Still, political leaders are failing to step up to do their jobs on this front. Unlike the shift in societal norms and resulting political action focused on curbing drunk driving, speeding “remains a publicly-accepted driving behavior that is reinforced among motorists, policymakers and transportation stakeholders,” according to an impressive new report, Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge, released by the Governors Highway Safety Association in January 2019. (Join our webinar on February 20, 2019 to learn more.)
“The only thing more shocking than the oversized role speeding plays in crashes, fatalities, and injuries is the fact that little has changed over time with regards to the footprint of speed in traffic safety, public and policymaker opinion, or even the menu of countermeasures being deployed.” – Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge
At the Vision Zero Network, we couldn’t agree more with the report’s recommendations focused on the systemic changes needed to prioritize safety over speed. For too long, we’ve focused most of our energy on influencing individuals to not speed, yet, the reality is that many roadways’ designs and the speeds set and the policies in place actually prioritize speed above safety and encourage unsafe behavior. For instance, we’ve seen an astonishing number of states raise speed limits on their roadways in recent years, despite clear evidence that this relates to more crashes and severe injuries. And too many states ban automated speed enforcement (or make it almost impossible to implement), even though the safety benefits of this technology have been proven.
Fortunately, we’re also seeing communities say enough to this outdated — and deadly — approach of disregarding high speeds. A growing number of cities, including New York City and Chicago, lowered their speed limits with positive safety results. Not only did Portland, Oregon lower its speed limit, it also reconfigured its overall approach to managing speed, becoming a new model for other Vision Zero communities. Charlotte, North Carolina recently voted to reduce their speed limits, while Boston, which lowered the speed limit in 2017 from 30 mph to 25 mph, is considering a further reduction to 20 mph. These cities needed to move past notable state-level barriers to advance their Vision Zero safety goals.
So, what needs to happen next? We need to acknowledge that we are not going to change this tragic situation by throwing more money at billboard and ad campaigns admonishing people to “Slow Down.” We need to call on our elected leaders and system designers to do the right thing and prioritize safety over speed in meaningful ways, including the following urgent needs, pulled from the new GHSA report:
Bolster National Leadership on Speed Management
The Feds have historically shown a lack of attention and support to this issue. This can and must change. Feds should:
- Address the nonsensical lack of a federal traffic safety grant program focused exclusively on speed management (which exists for other leading causes of traffic fatalities, such as drunk driving, but not for speed). Create and fund a strong federal program!
- Allow federal funds to support proven safety programs, such as well-designed Automated Speed Enforcement efforts (which is currently not allowed)
- Incentivize — or require — that states update traffic crash forms to improve reporting of speed-related incidents to better support data-driven prevention strategies
States Need to Step Up, Or Out of the Way, on Safety
Too often, states are light years behind the local communities in understanding and acting on what works to improve safety. Even worse, the states sometimes actively stand in the way of locals’ efforts. States should:
- Remove unreasonable barriers to the use of Automated Speed Enforcement, which a growing number of local communities are eager to adopt to save lives, based on plentiful evidence
- Allow locals to set speed limits not at the traditional, outdated 85% level, but at appropriate, safe levels in accordance with Vision Zero principles that take into account the mix of vulnerable road users, crash history, land use, etc.
- Allow for greater flexibility in roadway design for safety over speed
- Train law enforcement in the proper crash evaluation/causation, in order to address common under-reporting of speed-related crashes. We need statewide consistency among law enforcement practices.
All of this (and more) is needed to give local communities the capacity to effectively manage speed for safety. Some good news: new opportunities abound for communities seeking support for speed management strategies, including the following new resources, guidance and trainings:
- The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) launched a Speed Management for Safety resource hub highlighting a variety of speed management resources to guide communities seeking to safely manage speeds, including topics such as Speed as a Safety Problem, Setting Speed Limits and creating a Speed Management Program. It also includes an interactive forum to post questions for instant discussion and answers within the transportation community.
- Check out the GHSA’s recently released Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge report, which offers many important strategies to turn the tide on unsafe speeds. Vision Zero communities and leaders — we recommend you share this report with your state Office of Traffic Safety and use the ideas to engage them on their role in Vision Zero efforts.
- Join our upcoming webinar, organized by the Vision Zero Network and GHSA on their Speed Management report findings Wednesday February 20, 2019 (10am PST/1pm EST).
- Save-the-date for GHSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s joint speeding forum April 15-16, 2019 in Ruckersville, VA. The forum will engage a diverse group of stakeholders to identify strategies to reduce speeding, prevent crashes and save lives.
- Thanks to support from the Road to Zero Coalition, the Vision Zero Network and ITE will conduct a one-day speed management workshop in two communities: Austin, TX and Durham, NC. The outcomes will be publicly shared and become the framework for future trainings and resources. For more information, visit this link.
- Lastly, in January 2019 the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices made significant recommendations to speed setting guidance, which was advised in last year’s report by the National Transportation Safety Board. This includes removing the 85th percentile as dominant speed setting guidance and elevating consideration of Safe Systems factors, such as presence of people walking and bicycling, land use, and crash history. This is big news given that the 85th percentile has been attributed to unsafe travel speeds, especially on roads with people walking, bicycling, and riding transit.
Find out more about the Vision Zero Network’s take on the importance of managing speed for safety, including a host of resources, here.