25 Mph Speed Limit Would End Pedestrian Fatalities

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
As you can seee, some streets in San Antonio lack very basic pedestrian amenities. Photo courtesy of SAmetroplan.org.

As you can see, some streets in San Antonio lack very basic pedestrian amenities. Photo courtesy of SAmetroplan.org.

Media coverage of pedestrian accidents follows a standard pattern.

First is the assessment of whether the pedestrian was in designated crosswalks. If not, that fact is pointed out. There is rarely any question about where the nearest crosswalk is, or why there is not a crosswalk in the place of the accident.

The next detail reported is whether the driver was grossly negligent, such as driving while intoxicated or racing. There is little attention given to posted speed limit or other evidence about the driver’s speed at the time of the collision.

Then it’s reported whether the driver stopped. If the driver was not grossly negligent and stopped, then the standard line is to report the driver failed to see the pedestrian in time to avoid the collision. I have never read a report that questions whether the driver had a responsibility to see someone on the road, or on the shoulder, or even on the sidewalk.

Too often, the last detail reported is that the driver is not expected to face charges. Granted, the decision about charges is not the media’s to make, but I have yet to read a report that even challenges the validity of those decisions in any complete or responsible way.

Pedestrian fatalities are routinely dismissed as unavoidable or the fault of the pedestrian, yet evidence shows they are quite avoidable, as demonstrated by hundreds of communities around the nation. New York City Council recently passed an ordinance lowering the speed limit for most streets from 30 to 25 mph. Not only are there hundreds of examples of exceptional pedestrian safety around the country, there are three examples here in San Antonio.

Smart Growth America’s report Dangerous by Design 2014 mapped pedestrian fatalities nationwide from 2003-12. During this period, 373 pedestrian fatalities were reported in San Antonio. During the same period, Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) had a combined total of zero pedestrian fatalities. Not a single pedestrian fatality on those installations for 10 consecutive years or more.

Screen shot of Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design map of fatalities nationwide from 2003 to 2012.

Screen shot of Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design map of fatalities in San Antonio from 2003 to 2012.

As much as Fort Sam Houston, Lackland AFB and Randolph AFB stand out compared to the rest of San Antonio, they are not exceptional compared to any other U.S. military installation. Fort Bliss, Fort Hood, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, and Sheppard AFB in Texas, Peterson AFB and Fort Carson in Colorado, Fort Sill and Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, Keesler AFB in Mississippi; the same pattern is repeated over and over again. Zero fatalities during the study period on military installations around the county, yet dozens in the surrounding communities. The difference is so universal that I began to doubt the data included the military installations, until finding one exception. Beale AFB, California had one pedestrian fatality in 2007.

The city – and the nation – could learn something about pedestrian safety from the military. How has the military, for all practical purposes, eliminated pedestrian fatalities? The solution is simple: military installations have slower posted speed limits than civilian communities, and drivers on military installations are more compliant with posted speed limits. Speed limits on military installations are 30 mph in most areas and 20 mph in housing areas. Even though speed limits are strictly enforced on military installations and drivers are more compliant, data suggests low posted speed limits produce the same results in civilian communities.

Click here to download the Smart Growth America report.

Click here to download the Smart Growth America report.

During the study period, 73% of all pedestrian fatalities in the San Antonio metropolitan area occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 40 mph or more, and the remaining 27% of pedestrian fatalities occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 30 or 35 mph. No fatalities occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 25 mph or less. Clearly public policy can eliminate pedestrian fatalities by establishing and enforcing a city-wide 25 mph speed limit.

An enforced city-wide 25 mph speed limit would eliminate pedestrian, and most likely all traffic fatalities, but without a doubt would meet staunch public resistance. If asked, without hesitation any elected or appointed public official would almost certainly state that his or her top priority for traffic policy is safety. Yet public policy and ordinances in municipalities across the nation refute that position. Texas state law refutes that position. Public demand refutes that position.

The top priority for every stakeholder is clearly traffic flow, with the exception of the U.S. military. If safety were truly our number one concern, then the U.S. military shows that every community in the nation could eliminate pedestrian fatalities, and that what is safe for pedestrians is equally safe for all road users. The military obviously places a premium on the lives of those entering their installations, while civilian leaders clearly do not.

A city-wide 25 mph speed limit is feasible, but it would be a dramatic policy shift with consequences reaching far beyond saving the lives of more than 50 pedestrians and more than 200 motorists per year in San Antonio. Fortunately, those consequences also align neatly with commonly voiced community values and goals, including those stated in community master plans and planning documents such as SA2020. For example, reducing vehicle miles traveled, improving air quality, improving walkability, improving health and fitness, improving multimodal transportation, and improving land use.

Any one of us could anticipate the arguments against a city-wide 25 mph speed limit. First and foremost would be the argument about long commutes. Studies show people will commute 30 minutes, regardless of distance. I acknowledge that initially commutes would be long, but commute distances would likely adjust over time to return to an acceptable 30 minute commute. However, I’ll sidestep that argument altogether and return to the issue in this article. The tradeoff with higher speeds means more fatalities. We can have longer distance commutes at higher speeds, but doing so means people die. We have proven that.

Additional arguments against a city-wide 25 mph speed limit might include something about driving at highway speed being better for the environment, highway speeds being more fuel-efficient, or higher rates of speed being better for the economy. Before those arguments are even debated, the first debate should be whether or not those benefits, if the claims were even valid, are worth loss of life, because loss of life is part of the price to pay for higher speeds.

Pedestrian fatalities, and traffic fatalities in general, can be eliminated in San Antonio. Doing so doesn’t require some new technology or magic pixie dust, it could be achieved with an enforced city-wide 25 mph speed limit. Or, we can continue as usual knowing that the result will be more than 50 pedestrian fatalities per year. City and state public policies that prioritize traffic flow over safety guarantee dozens of pedestrian fatalities in San Antonio and over 4,000 in the state of Texas every year. Military leaders have prioritized lives over traffic flow, and eliminated pedestrian fatalities. Civilian leaders could do the same.

Traffic engineers, and TxDOT, will tell you that posting slow speeds on roads designed for high speed results in even more accidents. Of course, traffic engineers and TxDOT have done a spectacularly fine job of designing high speed urban roads that kill people, but even this failure can be fixed by redesigning our roads to communicate a speed limit of 25 mph. Wide, straight roads with a long line of sight communicate high speed. Narrow streets with a short line of sight communicate slow speed. Slow speed saves lives, and are also more welcoming to pedestrians and non-motorist road users.

This observation is timely, because a city built for 25 mph traffic has the qualities we often say we want, including walkability, improved air quality, better public health, and multimodal transportation. As we move forward with the comprehensive planning effort, I call for pedestrian safety to be the driving principle. Safety was no doubt part of the reason Olmos Park implemented a 25 mph speed limit in its municipality. With safety as our driving principle, we could follow the leadership of Joint Base San Antonio and eliminate pedestrian fatalities by implementing a city-wide 25 mph speed limit.

*Featured/top image: As you can see, some streets in San Antonio lack very basic pedestrian amenities. Photo courtesy of SAmetroplan.org

Related Stories:

Fort Sam Houston: San Antonio’s Link to the Historical and Modern-Day Military

San Antonio Ranks 18th Most Dangerous For Pedestrians

Pedestrian Safety and City Planning in San Antonio

The High-Hanging Fruit: Broadway’s Complete Street Potential

Where I Live: Prospect Hill

39 thoughts on “25 Mph Speed Limit Would End Pedestrian Fatalities

  1. Great article Kevin.

    Just a couple of notes, provided without comment.

    – Alamo Heights recently lowered residential speed limits to 25mph.
    – It takes exactly 24 seconds longer to travel one mile at 25mph as opposed to 30mph.
    – It takes about 75 feet to make a complete stop at 30mph; it only takes 60 feet to stop at 25mph.

    Take from those what you will.

    • Exactly. The accident noted at the beginning of this article is a good example. From the point where the skid marks started to where the vehicle stopped was 150 feet (the paint from the investigation is still on the street). Assuming the entire distance from the start of the skid to the stop was emergency braking, the estimated speed would have been 55 mph in a 35 mph zone. Reaction time would have been another ~55 feet before the start of the skid. Therefore, total stopping distance was ~ 205 feet.

      At 35 mph, total stopping distance would have only been 95 feet, and at 25 mph total stopping distance would have been 56 – 60 feet. The collision would probably not have occurred at 25 mph. If there had been a collision, it would have been with a vehicle going much less than 10 mph, rather closer to 35 mph. Who’s to say, but my guess is the pedestrian would not have ended up critically injured.

      It’s discussions like this when we need a good actuary.

  2. There are a lot more difference factors in military traffic than is outlined here. Military personnel are often required to wear high visibility reflective belts or vests.

    Crosswalks and sidewalks are also in much higher abundance, the amount of law enforcement in such a small area is way higher, and the penalties for moving violations aren’t just a fine. If you get in trouble you are also reported to your unit command and a serious infraction could jeopardize the privilege of living on-base altogether. Speed is just one factor, and probably not the biggest one.

    • I absolutely agree drivers on military installations are more compliant with speed limits. That point was made in the article. I didn’t discuss why they are more compliant, although I agree entirely with your assessment. However, based on data for non-military communities, I believe there is ample evidence to show speed is a major factor in the success of military installations on pedestrian safety. Only 1.2% of pedestrian fatalities in Texas occurred on roads with posted speed limits of 25 mph or less. That is not as good as military installations, but an incredible improvement over the status quo. Enforcement will be an issue, which is why I said an “enforced city-wide 25 mph speed limit”. The challenge of enforcing a 25 mph speed limit shouldn’t be the reason not to do it when evidence shows it could save 98.8% of pedestrian fatalities from current driving habits.

    • That’s not exactly the point I was making. I said traffic engineers will tell you it is dangerous to have posted speed limits too low for the design speed of the road, but the roads can be designed to communicate slow speed instead of high speed. Curved roads, along with other factors, will communicate slow speed. I once lived on a street in Germany that was no more than 12 feet wide, maybe only 10 feet wide. There were no shoulders. There were no speed limit signs posted, and people drove less than 20 mph. Designing roads for slow speed slow traffic, just like designing roads for high speed increases speed.

  3. That would be amazing. However, the speed limit in front of my house is 30 & people are usually driving 50-60. I don’t see most SA drivers taking this very well. Drivers over all seem to disregard the speed limit in residential areas big time. We would need to double our police force to actually implement this. Just sayin…

  4. “Pedestrian fatalities, and traffic fatalities in general, can be eliminated in San Antonio. ” That statement is false. You can never eliminate ALL pedestrian and traffic fatalities even with a lower speed limit. It doesn’t take a lot of speed to cause a life ending head injury. Plus, San Antonio has too many people who walk in the streets even when a sidewalk is present.

    • Venice, Italy has solved, or avoided, the pedestrian fatality problem altogether. So, yes you can eliminate pedestrian fatalities, at least as a result of motor vehicle collisions.

      Even with the presence of automobiles, evidence suggests you can still eliminate pedestrian fatalities. Ten years of data on military installations is a good start. I looked at a lot of military installations and only found one case of a pedestrian fatality. In Texas, during the period of this study there were 4,172 fatalities. Just 1.2% were on roads with posted speed limits of 25 mph or less. That means 4,122 fatalities were on roads with posted speed limits of 30 mph or more. A 25 mph speed limit could have saved 4,122 lives. Perhaps we still have work to do to save the last 50 lives, so let’s take the first step then work on the rest.

      • Venice! That argument doesn’t hold water, no pun intended. You can’t compare the only major metropolitian city in the world that is considered to be car-free with a major U.S. city that has the amount of cars in it that we do. The U.S. loves their cars and it will be many generations before that changes. That said, San Antonio could reduce the amount of pedestrians getting hit by cars through public awareness campaigns teaching people to walk on the sidewalks and don’t cross crosswalks when it is flashing “don’t walk.” I see this all of the time around town.

        • The argument with Venice does hold. You claimed pedestrian fatalities can never be eliminated. They can. Venice is in fact one example. Military installations are another. However, eliminating pedestrian fatalities requires a shift in priority and approach.

          Your comments suggest you believe limiting the freedom of movement of pedestrians is the solution. We’ve tried that for the past 100 years. It hasn’t eliminated pedestrian fatalities. All it has done is shift liability away from drivers.

          You propose a public awareness campaign to educate pedestrians on the skills of walking, and claim that will reduce pedestrian fatalities. What evidence supports that claim? How significant will the reduction in fatalities be? And, at least for me, the most important question: just how many pedestrian fatalities per year is acceptable? For me, the only acceptable goal is zero. We probably disagree, so please let us know what your goal is, and offer the evidence that your approach will get us to that goal.

          I offer evidence, based on data from both military installations and the civilian community in San Antonio, that an enforced 25 mph speed limit can achieve zero pedestrian fatalities.

  5. Pedestrians aren’t any more responsible than drivers in this town. Crossing in the middle of busy streets, walking in the street, and crossing expressways on foot is just as bad as chronic speeders, not obeying traffic laws, being distracted when driving. A lower speed limit doesn’t seem to address the attitude that goes along with these behaviors.

  6. Interesting read. A city-wide speed change to 25? That’s a lot of new speed limit signs to put up. Wonder how much that would cost the tax payers.

    • If the city-wide speed limit were 25 mph, why would you need a bunch of signs? One at each entry to the city, and everywhere else the speed limit is 25 mph.

      • Looks like you’ve got it all figured out. This move would actually save the taxpayers big money. No need to add new MPH signs throughout the city. When do I vote for this? Also, isn’t Venice, Italy essentially a collaboration of water canals and sidewalks?

        • Correct, Venice, IT is sidewalks and canals … no cars. My point is there are other transportation solutions than cars. Can’t say when this will make the ballots, but that would be a welcome opportunity.

          • Hmmm…removing all roads and building canals may be a bit costly for San Antonio to afford. Not sure that referencing Venice was the best example to aid your argument.

  7. Another point that I think should be mentioned is the lack of sidewalks around major streets. When I lived across Clark High School and was amazed that there would be long stretches on De Zavala that didn’t have sidewalks (not to mention Vance Jackson above De Zavala, but that was before there was a flurry of construction over there). Even in midtown you’ll find a lack of sidewalks (notably Margaret by my house and I think there are stretches on St. Mary’s).

    I completely agree that the speed limit is a culprit, but not providing pedestrians a clear path to walk has to contribute to this issue as well.

    • I don’t disagree that sidewalks are necessary and important, but if the issue is safety, reducing the speed limit to 25 mph makes an incredible impact at almost no cost in infrastructure. Sidewalks are important, but for much more significant costs in infrastructure will make minimal impact in safety. Most pedestrian accidents happen as pedestrians cross roads, not walk along roads. Some accidents happen as pedestrians walk on sidewalks when motorists leave the road. Only 3-4 weeks ago a motorist left the road, drove over a sidewalk and struck my house. That sidewalk would not have protected any pedestrian who happened to be there at the time of the accident.

  8. Or. We could add excellent sidewalks and walking paths to get pedestrians out of harms was. People text at 25mph too.

  9. End fatalities? No, for all the reasons already given. No doubt it would help, but, yeah sidewalks!

  10. My neighborhood has no sidewalks and was one of the test neighborhoods for lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25… we can’t have the results until January but I know all of the neighbors love it. However, I think a speeder is just going to speed no matter what the speed limit is – 30 or 25. Like on military bases, when the police are out giving out tickets, everyone slows down but as soon as the police presence is gone, the speeders start going really fast again.

  11. Councilman Cris Medina proposed “Safe Streets SA” nearly a year ago. The program reduced speed limits from 30 to 25 in areas of high pedestrian activity. These include city parks, libraries, senior centers, etc. There are currently 11 pilot areas throughout the city. Instead of making the entire city 25 mph (unless otherwise posted), why not give residents and policymakers local control to determine what speed is safest for their neighborhood?

    • Derek,
      I would appreciate a link to the ordinance. I searched for the ordinance and just cannot find it. However, I did find the CCR which I assume initiated the ordinance. Assuming the final ordinance reflects the intent of the CCR, my critique would be:

      1. I agree residents should have the ability to set lower speed limits in their neighborhoods. The ordinance sets a minimum speed limit of 20 mph. Why limit residents to setting a speed limit of 20 mph? Why not allow residents to set even lower speed limits, or in a wildly optimistic world, why not even allow residents to ban motor vehicles altogether? There’s is no good reason why residents must be exposed to automobiles if the neighborhood does not want that exposure.

      2. I gather the intent of the CCR was to allow residents to reduce speed limits on residential streets. However, 73% of pedestrian fatalities in San Antonio occur roads with posted speed limits of 40 mph or more. The spirit of this ordinance does not appear to address that issue. Which residents can reduce the speed limit on Culebra, Military Dr, Zarzamora, Austin Hwy, or Old Hwy 90 to 20 mph? Those, and roads like them, are where pedestrians fatalities overwhelmingly occur. If this ordinance applies to those roads as well, your clarification would be appreciated.

      3. Paragraph 1 of the CCR states:
      “Examination of the current speed hump approval process and the requirments for other
      traffic calming measures where the safety and security of citizens requires it.” My point is if safety is truly our top traffic priority, then traffic calming measures are required on every road, not just select roads or those with popular support.

      To quote Councilman Medina in his 2103 State of District 7 report, “There is no higher mission for me than protecting our children, pedestrians, and bicyclists as they commute, exercise, and play on our local streets and sidewalks.” Evidence shows 0% of pedestrian fatalities in San Antonio occur on roads with posted speed limits of 25 mph or less, and 100% of fatalities occur on roads with posted speed limits of 30 mph or more. Selectively reducing speed limits on neighborhood streets that have 30 mph speed limits does not mitigate risk on the roads where 73% of pedestrian fatalities occur (those with posted speed limits of 40 mph or greater). If safety is truly a higher priority mission than level of service, then I believe Councilman Medina could be supportive of an enforced 25 mph city-wide speed limit.

  12. This is not feasible on major roadways in a sprawled out city like San Antonio. NYC and military bases are much smaller geographically than San Antonio. However, I believe Ralph Nader proposed decades ago, in “Unsafe At Any Speed”. that highways should be set to 55, so I agree it’s a lot safer reducing the speed limits on certain roads. However the presence of speed bumps around neighborhoods prove that there’s a “need for speed” in this city, and the safest thing to do is to divide the walking, biking, and driving populations. Cities in developed countries in Europe have already figured out solutions to these problems, actual divided bike and walk ways. With a higher amount of binge drinkers in this city, there are bound to continue to be fatalities even if the speed limit were reduced, the best thing to do is to ensure bike highways and safer pedestrian paths. There exists a networked layer of the city that could provide an alternative for biking and walkways, the waterways. We’re a shining example with the river walk, all we need to do is expand that idea into the rest of the city, allowing for biking, jogging everywhere else these waterways exist, sustainably of course.

    • I concur this would have a significant impact in sprawled cities, including San Antonio. I addressed that in the article. However, I also recognize that transportation decisions and land use policies have reciprocal impacts. Reducing city wide speed limits to 25 mph would almost certainly change land use policy, and the city would become much less sprawled. If we accept that the city is sprawled and continue with transportation policies that support sprawl, the result will be more sprawl, and it seems like there is no limit to sprawl’s appetite. The consequences will be even more traffic and pedestrian fatalities, infrastructure costs, impacts to air quality, and a host of other social, environmental, and public health impacts.

      The best time to address this problem would have been 70 years ago, but it didn’t get addressed 70 years ago. Waiting another 70 years to address it only guarantees another 70 years worth of pedestrian and motorist fatalities.

  13. 9/11 ruined the make up of this town. New Braunfels Ave should be re-opened so Mahnke Park is again connected to Government Hill. Also I lived in Berkeley where they couldn’t build sidewalks so they had designated bike and pedestrian friendly roads in between the main commuting roads with blocks to prevent cars from using these roads to commute.

  14. Considering the comments here regarding the need for better and wider sidewalks in San Antonio , hopefully the City can increase spending on sidewalk improvements substantially in 2016. The 2015 budget appears to set aside just $8.5m for 16mi of sidewalks and sidewalk improvements – or .035% of the 2.4b annual budget.

    Approximately 66% of this year’s annual budget is devoted to police and fire services (approximately $300m more than the City of Dallas spent in 2014 on similar services, and with double the first responders there). Pedestrian fatalities and our police andfire services costs will likely drop considerably with reduced speeds in many areas (following NYC in the drop to 25mph) and more spending on the pedestrian environment and public transport ($203m in 2015).

  15. If people would stop being so lazy and walk half a block down the street to the crosswalk, that would cut down fatalities too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people trying to cross in the middle of the street when there’s a light with a crosswalk right down the street. Not only that, but half of the time, these people are wearing dark clothing at night!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *