Drive 20 and you can help reduce fatalities on the road

The need for speed is something we’ve all felt, whether we’re late for work or just enjoying an open stretch of road. In many ways speed has become part of the American identity.

We’re all busy, and we all need to get where we’re going as quickly as possible, and we’re all watching car commercials in which our very same minivans, SUVs and station wagons deftly corner at high speeds on mountain roads. In this light , a low speed limit can seem like an annoyance.

But here in the city we are all pedestrians at one time or another and a small but growing minority are starting to commute by bicycle. When we are walking across or riding down the street we are all at risk of being hit by motor vehicles. And I think we can safely assume that if we are going to be hit, any sane person would prefer to be hit by a vehicle traveling at a lower speed. 

Studies on the subject tend to back up that bit of common sense. One of these compared crash and injury data in thousands of pedestrian crashes in Finland concluded that 5 percent of pedestrians would die if struck at 20 mph, 40 percent would die if struck at 30 mph, and 80 percent would die if struck at 40 mph. Boston’s speed limit for residential streets is 30 mph.

Of course, as we know well in Boston, a speed limit on any road does not equal the speed of the cars traveling down it. So the researchers on the task have looked into how speed limits themselves have affected injuries and fatalities in pedestrians hit by vehicles. When they reduced the speed limit in Graz, Austria to 19 mph on residential streets and 31 mph on “priority” streets, serious injuries decreased by 24 percent, and all pedestrian injuries fell by 17 percent. Economic savings were estimated at $6 million, a 26 percent drop. This experience has been repeated in cities all across Europe.

Recognizing that speed kills, Boston’s Transportation Department has already begun implementing a “complete streets” approach in Boston, a planning philosophy that accommodates all users and encourages slower motorized traffic through design. The new intersection and pedestrian plaza at Talbot and Dorchester avenues is a fine example.

Last year, Mayor Thomas Menino, also recognizing the benefits of slower traffic, submitted a home rule petition to the state legislature to reduce Boston’s speed limit on residential streets from 30 mph to 25 mph. This was a move well supported by WalkBoston—our city’s pedestrian advocacy organization—but the bill didn’t get out of committee.

This year the Boston Cyclists Union echoes WalkBoston’s call for safer streets. We applaud the moves the city has already made to calm traffic through better engineering, and we encourage our mayor to keep pressing the legislature for a lower speed limit—preferably 20 mph on residential streets, and 30 mph on our main arterials. It’s time we prioritized lives over speed.

Pete Stidman, a former news editor at the Reporter, is the director of the Boston Cyclists Union.