Citywide Speed Limit and Road Safety Plans

Thank you Chair Vacca, and members of the City Council Transportation Committee, for convening this important meeting.

In 2012, every week, 1,262 people were injured, 58 people lost a limb or suffered other life-altering injuries, and five New Yorkers were killed in traffic crashes. These unacceptably high rates of death and injury are lower than a decade ago, thanks to the work of the City Council, the Department of Transportation and the Police Department. Of course, this begs the question: how many traffic deaths a week is acceptable?

The answer, according to the municipal governments of Chicago, Washington D.C., and a host of other cities domestically and internationally, is zero. This “Vision Zero” goal has been endorsed by one of the leading candidates for Mayor, Bill de Blasio. Introductions 535 and 904-a are essential to achieving this Vision Zero goal.

Traffic deaths are preventable. We know the decisions people make that contribute to fatalities, and we know what actions to take to help people make better decisions. We must decide whether we are willing to take the action necessary to eliminate traffic deaths.

20 MPH Speed Limit on Residential Streets
In September of this year, the City of London joined Paris and Tokyo in lowering the speed limit to 20 miles per hour. Each of these cities has a far lower fatality rate than our own. Indeed, across the world, the data has shown that lower speed limits are highly correlated with improved safety. The City of New York would greatly enhance the safety of all New Yorkers—motorists and pedestrians alike—by adopting a similar measure. We should also expect that our city’s most vulnerable people—our children and elderly—would have the most to gain, in terms of increased safety. We can’t eliminate traffic deaths if we permit drivers to travel at speeds that are inappropriate for a dense urban environment.

Studies show that a one mile-per-hour reduction in average speed on pedestrian dense urban streets will lead to a 6% decrease in traffic crashes. And New York is home to the most dense urban streets in the country—46 of the 50 nation’s most dense zip codes are within the five boroughs. The introduction of the 20 mph zones in London, which is far less dense than NY, was associated with a reduction in casualties and collisions of around 40%. Between 1986 and 2006, the death and serious injury rate plummeted by 46% within these zones, while it only dropped by 8% on streets outside of these safety zones. The benefits were especially significant among younger children.

New Yorkers of all ages and abilities are walking, biking, driving and taking transit everywhere in New York City. Our streets policy should reflect this reality, yet instead we have the same default urban speed limit as Wyoming and South Carolina.

The difference between whether or not a crash occurs and how severe it is depends on how fast someone is driving:

Speed Stopping Distance Survival Rate* Severe Injury Rate*
20 mph 40 feet (3 car lengths) 98% survival (0/5 die) 25% suffer severe injury
30 mph 75 feet (6 car lengths) 80% survival (1/5 die) 50% suffer severe injury
40 mph 118 feet (9 car lengths) 30% survival (3.5/5 die) 75% suffer severe injury

Lower speed limits are closely associated with fewer crashes, injuries and deaths, and thereby would mean fewer dollars must be spent on emergency response, medical treatment and law enforcement. The city would also benefit by avoiding lost productivity and traffic congestion costs. Lower speed limits have also been shown boost business, improve community cohesiveness and lead to more vibrant neighborhoods, among other significant yet difficult to measure benefits.

We should make 20mph the default New York City speed limit. This is a reasonable approach to saving lives. There may be some streets on which a 20 mph speed limit seems inappropriate, but it is a better policy to start with a safe speed limit and then make the case for why it is important to make it more dangerous by raising it to 30mph. Today, we have it exactly backwards: the default is an unsafe speed limit, which is brought down to a reasonable speed limit after concentrated attention and effort.

Secondary Title
Intro. 535 and Intro. 904-a