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Getting There: Lower posted speed limits and drivers will respond

Earlier this year, a plan emerged from Spokane’s Community Assembly, the coalition of the city’s neighborhood councils.

Part of it sought to lower speed limits around the city’s 87 parks to 20 mph. The somewhat audacious idea was built on the basis of a state law passed in 2013 giving cities and counties more authority to set their own speed limits – without conducting an engineering or traffic study.

At the time, Spokane police Sgt. John Griffin, supervisor of the department’s traffic unit, said he appreciated the idea behind the plan but argued it just wouldn’t work.

“I don’t want to give the unrealistic expectation that just because we put up the sign, with our current staffing level we’ll be able to be at all of them, all the time,” Griffin said.

The plan, he suggested, lacked an essential component: Cops enforcing the law. The only real deterrent against speeding.

But is it true that without officers at the parks enforcing the law, motorists would blaze by the city’s greenspaces?

Nope. That’s according to a new study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Released last week at the annual Governors Highway Safety Association meeting in Atlanta, the study showed that the simple act of lowering posted speed limits is effective at reducing how fast motorists go.

The study compared vehicle speeds before and after Boston lowered city street speed limits from 30 mph to 25 mph in January 2017. The results were unambiguous: drivers slowed down.

“We found significant reductions in the odds of vehicles in Boston exceeding 25 mph, 30 mph and 35 mph associated with the reduced speed limit, and the decline was biggest for the odds of vehicles exceeding 35 mph,” said the institute’s president, David Harkey.

Specifically, the odds of a motorist going faster than 35 mph decreased by more than 29 percent. For those going faster than 30 mph, the odds dropped by 8.5 percent, and for those exceeding 25 mph – the posted limit – they went down by nearly 3 percent.

(A quick sidenote: The study uses “odds” because it measured speeds at 50 individual sites rather than following the behavior of particular motorists before and after the change in speed limits.)

The study’s findings are important because, as the institute notes, even small increases in vehicle speeds can lead to fatal or serious injury.

A pedestrian struck by a vehicle at 25 mph has a 25 percent chance of being seriously injured or killed, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Add eight mph, and that risk jumps to 50 percent. Add another eight mph – to 41 mph – and the chance of getting seriously hurt or killed jumps to 75 percent.

The study noted that all American cities should take note of its findings. It might have been speaking directly to Spokane’s case.

“Local communities should consider lowering speed limits to improve road safety,” the study reads. “Updated state laws that allow municipalities to set lower speed limits on urban streets without requiring laborious and costly engineering studies can provide flexibility to municipalities to set speed limits that are safe for all road users.”

It probably goes without saying, but Sgt. Griffith’s idea of officers actually enforcing the law is sound. He was speaking to the impossible workload that would be needed for continuous enforcement of the new speed limits, and the impracticality of nabbing speeders considering the number of officers employed by the city and the hierarchy of crimes they must prevent and solve.

But enforcement is just one aspect of getting motorists to slow their roll. The design and function of a road is also a huge factor in getting drivers to lower speeds. So is the presence of bicyclists and pedestrians. You know, the kind of folks you see near parks.

The Community Assembly plan has some legs, but not a lot of teeth. Last week, the assembly’s Pedestrian, Traffic and Transportation committee, which came up with the original speed plan for the city’s 87 parks, issued a recommendation to the city council.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who with Councilman Mike Fagan recently proposed a pilot project to test if speed limits around city parks were being followed, had asked the committee “whether they prefer reduced speed limits as part of the program, or if they simply want increased enforcement of current speed limits.”

The committee voted in preference of increased enforcement of current limits, but with a “caveat.”

“The caveat is related to the fact the committee is unclear about the rationale or goal of the pilot program,” the recommendation letter read.

They’re not alone. If lowering posted speed limits works, at a fraction of the cost of increasing patrols, why not give it a shot? And if Kinnear and Fagan are recommending speed cameras similar to those around some of Spokane’s elementary schools, why not do both – lower limits and better enforcement?

That’s not what they’re proposing. Fagan is a vocal critic of the camera system, and reliably votes against it and similar programs when they come before the council.

As the institute’s Harkey said, the implementation of measures “that we know work” to lower speeds, “such as automated enforcement,” are not only necessary for safety but also needed sooner than later.

For those who doubt the ability of cameras to catch speeders, just look at the city’s recent numbers for cameras near Longfellow and Finch elementary schools. Since the cameras were installed in 2016, they have caught 21,500 speeders and generated $4 million in fines.

And if the argument is the cameras just generate revenue for the city and do nothing to dampen speeds, what’s the difference with a cop writing tickets – other than continuous enforcement?

It’s not a question of whether motorists will go slower. It’s a question of whether the city wants them to.

North Monroe near completion

The work to renovate North Monroe Street is close to completion. All the pavement has been put down, landscaping and signage done and paint stripes baked into the milelong stretch of the road.

On Saturday, a dozen or so people on skateboards took advantage of the new pavement and lack of cars, doing tricks off some structures they brought to the street and filming each other.

In the county

The Forker Hill road between Pleasant Prairie and Progress is open to traffic. Drivers should be alert for a temporary realignment at the bottom of the hill and the 25 mph speed limit, which stretches from Progress to Evergreen. Work on this project could extend into November, depending on the weather.

Work on the Palouse Highway between 55th and 61st is slowing commutes. Flaggers are present.

Post Street Bridge replacement needs input

The city is replacing the aging and dilapidated Post Street Bridge. Public feedback, and the rising cost of steel, convinced the city to save the bridge’s historic arches, but the city wants more input about its replacement’s design.

In short, the city is looking at various options concerning how vehicles, pedestrians and users of the Centennial Trail will share the bridge. Should the trail view the upper or lower falls? Would a “wavy” vehicular path make sense?

It also wants to know what type of safety barrier people prefer.

For more information and to take the city’s very short survey, visit my.spokanecity.org/projects/post-street-bridge.

Noted urban thinker coming to town

Joe Minicozzi, a North Carolina-based city planner and former head of the Asheville Downtown Association, is coming to town thanks to the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

Minicozzi will speak about “planning walkable urban developments, changing the perception of biking and walking as being ‘alternative’ transportation, the value of buildings versus the value of parking lots, and growth strategies that can reduce transportation costs while boosting tax revenues.”

The event is free and open to everybody. It will take place Thursday, Sept. 13, at 6 p.m. at Greater Spokane Incorporated, 801 W. Riverside, Suite 100.


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