Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

15 miles/hour? Why we shouldn't lower D.C.'s residential speed limits

November 7, 2011 - 02:35 PM
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We just don't obey. (Photo: flickr/ElvertBarnes)

One new law floated in the D.C. Council these days would call for the city to lower the speed limits in residential neighborhoods to 15 miles/hour. Do people drive too fast through residential neighborhoods? Of course they do. But lowering the speed limit to 15 miles/hour is not the answer and would continue the transportation tradition of double talk that accompanies our traffic laws and enforcement.

As it stands now, residential speed limits in the District, Virginia, and Maryland are set at 25 miles/hour. No one seems to mind this speed, however, or find it unsafe. What people object to are the real speed demons, those people who notice the 25 miles/hour limit and will then race down neighborhood roads at 35 and 40 miles/hour.

And here comes the double talk because in the American traffic system, as I've discussed before, no one obeys the letter of the law so much as the spirit, and enforcement reflects this tradition. The government posts 55 miles/hour and people go 70. It posts 25 miles/hour and sometimes people rush at 30 and even 40 miles/hour. A Vancouver Sun columnist has noted this year how, even up in Canada, no one follows the posted speed limit. Accidents happen. The new hope of the D.C. Council, presumably, is that drivers will, under a new 15 mile/hour limit, stick to the current posted speeds of 25 miles/hour.

But what about enforcement? How will a new speed restriction change what's happening — and more importantly, is this the correct fix our transportation system needs?

A sense of urgency infects more than a few people who take to the wheel. Consider this recent lamentation called "Slow Drivers, Get Out of Our Way," from CNN.com columnist LZ Granderson: 

...nothing comes close to the level of irritation that comes from being stuck behind someone doing 55 in a 65 in the far left lane. Drive the speed you want, but why infringe on the rights of those in a hurry? To me, that's giving the rest of us on the road the finger in the most passive aggressive -- "Who me?"-- way possible. In fact, I would much rather have someone pull up beside me, roll down their window and flip me the bird as they go driving by than be trapped behind this vehicular anarchist.

And you know they see you.

They see all of us -- bobbing and weaving in their rearview mirror, trying to find a gap between the lanes big enough so we may be able to slip through and go on with our lives. But nooooooooo -- these offenders don't feel obligated to go any faster and they refuse to move over to the right because in their sanctimonious minds, they're going fast enough for all of us.

Now I don't blame Granderson for his sense of hurry nor do I think it's at the crux of what we're talking about. He's upset with slow drivers who hoard the left lane on the road. But he does speak to that broader rush that affects drivers at virtually all hours. It's very real. People want to get where they're going and not dally in traffic. Our commutes, after all, are terrible.

Currently AAA Mid-Atlantic doubts the wisdom of the new law, according to the Examiner, wondering whether 15 miles/hour is really possible, even, and whether it'll spark road rage, while Councilmember Muriel Bowser cites the number of pedestrian lives that may be saved from driving 20 miles/hour rather than 40. Yes, that would be much safer, and our residential streets should rein in reckless driving behavior.

But 40 is 15 miles faster than what's legal now. Why aren't more people suggesting better police enforcement of existing traffic rules rather than set new ones that, of course, won't be maintained either? It's silly to legislate one thing and to expect and do another, and that's precisely what's happened to our country's traffic laws and expectations. Better enforcement and driver education seem like superior solutions to posting new limits that at their core remain rather arbitrary and unenforced. No hearing date has been set for the proposed law, but it's already sparked a lot of talk. This issue of speed-limit enforcement and our culture's transportation double talk should be a part of it.

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