Vacca Endorses Life-Saving 20 MPH Speed Limit

Pedestrian survival rates are far higher in 20 mph collisions than at higher speeds.
Pedestrian survival rates are far higher in 20 mph collisions than at higher speeds.

Speed kills, even when traffic is moving at New York’s citywide limit of 30 miles per hour. According to the UK Department for Transport, if a driver hits a pedestrian at 30 miles per hour, the victim only has a 55 percent chance of surviving. At 20 mph, the pedestrian has a 95 percent chance of survival.

With those ten miles per hour so often the difference between life and death, reducing the speed limit to 20 mph emerged as a top goal at last Friday’s Stop Speeding Summit, organized by Transportation Alternatives and NYU’s Rudin Center. After presentations about 20 mph programs from across the Atlantic and across the Hudson, City Council Transportation Committee Chair Jimmy Vacca capped the discussion by pledging his support for 20 mph speed limits in New York City.

“I’d like the speed limit to be 20 miles per hour,” said Vacca. A slower speed, he argued, is a necessary component of a transportation system that favors pedestrians and protects them from danger. “The pedestrian is always right, even when the pedestrian is wrong,” he said. He said that in his East Bronx district, speeding traffic is one of the top complaints.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stopped short of endorsing 20 mph limits outright, but suggested he was open to the idea. After expressing his concern about traffic ripping down Manhattan streets well above the 30 mph limit, Stringer noted that “perhaps it should be even slower.” He recalled learning about how increased speeds make crashes far deadlier. “It was really frightening to realize that these cars are coming at such a speed that if they hit somebody, they’re going to kill somebody.”

The next two speakers provided enough evidence to make many a fence-sitter come down on the side of lower speed limits.

First, British safety activist Rod King laid out why 20’s been plenty for the UK.

He highlighted the experience of Portsmouth, a city of 197,000 which implemented a 20 mph speed limit on every residential road. “Conventional wisdom before this said that if you reduce the speed limit and don’t put in physical barriers, people will almost totally ignore it,” said King. But on the faster-moving streets, he said, there was an average speed reduction of 7.4 mph. Casualties on the roads dropped by 22 percent overall, with large safety improvements for pedestrians and drivers alike.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that 20 mph speed limits are spreading like wildfire through the UK. There are now 5 million people living in towns where every single residential street has a 20 mph speed limit, said King. And the national Department for Transport has issued guidelines endorsing 20 mph limits for all residential streets.

Closer to home, New Yorkers can also draw inspiration from Hoboken, where the city just began a program urging drivers to stay below 20 mph. That educational campaign just won a vote of support from the City Council, whose largest complaint was that the speed limit was not changed outright, according to Hoboken Transportation and Parking Director Ian Sacs. (Sacs explained that state and county rules made that infeasible.)

Sacs did a test drive through Hoboken, following the 20 mph guideline, and found that it would add only 42 seconds to a trip across the small city. “I hope that doesn’t significantly impact your life to the extent that you wouldn’t want to save somebody else’s,” he said.

According to T.A. Safety Campaign Director Lindsey Ganson, New York City has the authority to reduce the speed limit to as low as 15 mph unilaterally around schools and in locations where some traffic calming measure is in place. State legislation would be required to reduce the overall city speed limit, and the legislature has allowed towns and cities to reduce speed limits before.

  • Larry Littlefield

    What’s strange about New York is that the speed limit is the same on a six lane arterial as on a one-lane one-way residential street.

  • “The pedestrian is always right, even when the pedestrian is wrong,” Absolutely!

  • Doug

    If you want a real fright, take some of the intercity buses that navigate our streets. I take several of them to/from Boston (Bolt, Megabus, Greyhound, etc.) and they often hit 40-45 mph flying down one of the avenues, especially late at night. The thought of one of them hitting a cyclist or pedestrian is terrifying.

  • Brandon

    If a driver goes 40mph in a 20mph zone, isnt that the twice-the-limit threshold for wreckless driving?

  • re: “New York City has the authority to reduce the speed limit to as low as 15 mph unilaterally around schools and in locations where some traffic calming measure is in place.”

    Yeah, traffic calming measures all over: people, cyclists!

  • Vacca-Wow

    Vacca continues to impress and go beyond any expectations.

  • StevenF

    A logical first step is to identify target streets where 20 MPH can be applied now with minimal opposition.

    I suggest all the single lane one way streets across the city that have a curb to curb distance of 30 feet or less. There are a few two way streets of this width too, and they should also be limited to 20.

    This 30 foot width is the typical width of Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn local cross streets, and much of Queens. I think many of the SI former cow paths that pass for their arterials may be this narrow too. 😉

    There is great logic to applying this width. With only one lane and usually parking, there is close to zero time between a pedestrian stepping out from between cars and being in the motor lane. There is limited passing space for cars around cyclists, so why encourage speeding to the red light at the corner anyway. These streets are expected to have cars pulling into and out of parking spaces, people crossing mid block and all the other community things quiet streets are supposed to support. Why have 30 MPH on these narrow streets.

    This will be a much easier sell than arguing that the wide avenues and wide streets like 14th and 23rd be slowed – as much as they may need it.

    I’m also thinking of applying 20 MPH service roads such as Ocean Parkway, Queens Blvd or Grand Concourse – if the main drive is 30 or faster, why should the service road be 30? It’s there to provide local land service, not to be a full speed annex to the center drives.

  • tom

    In Dublin this year the Council imposed 20KPH on the roads in center city. What’s that?, not even 15MPH. The taxi drivers complained the bikers were going faster than that. You have to be a local( A Dubh) to go faster on those narrow crazy-signed roads, but they do.
    My favorite in Ireland though is the two lane arterial out by Galway Bay which is signed for 60KPH. I have to make a quick right onto a barely paved driveway masquerading as the local access road and immediately come upon two signs, one on either side of the path, indicating the limit is now 80KPH.
    It’s a great country, if they could only roof it.

  • Joe R.

    “A logical first step is to identify target streets where 20 MPH can be applied now with minimal opposition.

    I suggest all the single lane one way streets across the city that have a curb to curb distance of 30 feet or less. There are a few two way streets of this width too, and they should also be limited to 20.”

    Yes, excellent idea. I agree 100%. There’s little reason why anyone should go 30 mph on those types of streets.

  • Rww14642

    Motorists racing to the red light is reduced in vehicles with regenerative breaking like the prius. There’s a big advantage to timing arrival to the light change, and synchronizing lights to the desired limit.

    Note that the legend doesn’t describe the figure but the reciprocal. 85% die at 40 mph. The figure doesn’t plot survival but lethality.

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