Reducing Residential Speed Limits to 15MPH?

“Dear PoPville,

An Argument for Lower Speed Limits in Residential Areas?

Not sure what DC laws are b/c I don’t have a car. But I have noticed that DC drivers tend to navigate their vehicles like maniacs, and it can get quite stressful walking about…”

The reader includes a link and graph from Andrew Sullivan that shows pedestrians have a 45% chance of being killed by a car going 30mph but only a 5% chance if it is going 20mph.

Yesterday on twitter Ward 4 Council Member Muriel Bowser tweeted:

“Should speed limit on residential streets be 15 mph? I just intro’d legislation to require lowering the speed limit. Let’s talk about it.”

Personally I’m opposed to a 15mph limit. I echo what some have said already – I’d prefer enforcement of current laws. When I see a car going 50mph on a residential street it is terrifying. And that should be illegal. I think 15mph is just painfully slow. I’d also be curious to learn how a “residential street” is defined? What do you guys think – should the residential street speed limit be lowered to 15mph?

90 Comment

  • 15 mph is an insane speed limit. As is the 25 mph in many places. I’m looking at you, Piney Branch Pkwy.

  • Cars do need to slow down for sure, but without better enforcement, I’m not sure what reducing the speed limit will actually do.

    I think 25mph is a reasonable speed for residential streets; the problem is that many people don’t follow that limit. I’d say go for better enforcement and/or higher penalties for speeding in a residential area.

    • claire


      It doesn’t matter what the sign says if no one’s actually enforcing it.

      • Yep. Leave it to the good ole DC City Council to propose laws that have absolutely no chance of being enforced. Our cops are so “busy” that they can’t even address the blatant moving violations (speeding, illegal turns, failure to stop, reckless driving) that happen 1,000’s of times daily. Who’s to imagine that lowering the speed limit city-wide will do anything but make life that much more annoying in DC.

        If there’s a problem with speeding and/or accidents in a particular area then the Council should press MPD to do more enforcement there.

    • Raise the limit to 30 and fine people more for exceeding that. Get cops out on the roads in a fair manner, curb speed cameras to schools and clearly label signs on streets and street names. 25MPH was designated when cars took the length of a block to stop. Lets stop making all these accommodations and rules for pedestrians and drivers who are too dumb to follow rules and good etiquette.

  • I’m all for rational speed limit setting – setting the speed limit at the 85th percentile speed and actually enforcing that. That strikes a balance between what most drivers find acceptable (and most won’t find 50 on a residential acceptable)…cracking down on those who do break that speed limit.

    One of the problems with setting a speed limit artificially low (like 15mph) is that most officers can’t or won’t enforce it. They’d be out all day just writing speeding tickets on those streets. I’d rather see a speed limit set that makes engineering sense and that is actually enforceable.

    More on rational speed limits:

  • I think with limited MPD enforcement it makes some sense. Since the 25 mph is largely unenforced for drivers going around 30-35 mph, maybe lowering the legal limit to 15 mph will result in more drivers moving at an actual speed around 25 mph. As someone who lives off of a section of Florida that drivers constantly speed on, I welcome any method of slowing drivers down to a safe speed.

  • Yeah, if they cannot enforce 25mph why is 15mph any better? If anything they should put cameras or speed traps around so they actually catch people. Drivers feel like they can get away with blowing down a side street because they are likely to not get caught.

    • and those cameras should be in places where it matters, like on first street in this picture. not in the 4th street tunnel or the highway on north capitol next to the old soldiers home that has a cloverleaf interchange and no sidewalks.

      put them where the pedestrians are!

  • We also need pedestrians to cross at designated crossings.

    • claire

      And cars to stop for pedestrians in designated crossings… looking at you 2nd & Florida NW.

      • +100000 … I’ve come close to being hit while other cars have stopped and people ignore the sign. Car didnt even slam on the breaks- I hit her hood and yelled at her, but she screamed at me for being in the wrong. I walk and drive and live by 2nd and florida everyday, and I can’t count the times I see violations in one day…people even hitting the signs with their cars. The sign at 3rd and Florida has had to be replaced 4 times, and it had to be moved back several feet to prevent careless drivers from hitting it.

        Speed is not the main issue here.

    • if thats really a huge deal, you should relax a little bit more.

      • I hit someone who crossed in the middle of a busy street. It is a big deal to me, especially because a) he almost died and b) I had to pay the collision deductible out of my own pocket.

  • Just bike commute since you can go 15mph on your bike

  • i can’t even drive 55!

  • Absolutely not. If people aren’t obeying 25, what makes you think they’ll obey 15? I’d focus on enforcement instead, to make drivers lose what I call the ‘honey badger’ attitude.

    • Hey – you don’t need to drag me into this!

      • 😉

        Honey Badger, surely you shouldn’t give a **** about the possibility that someone might confuse you with your Internet meme namesake.

        • You’re right. And Trinidaddy did use the lower case honey badger rather than the proper name.

          The Honey Badger had too much coffee this morning.

  • If you lower the limit to unreasonable levels, then (a) more people will speed; (b) cops will be even less likely to enforce the law. Keep it at 25.

    • Exactly. If you make it 15, the vast majority of drivers are going to surpass the limit — including non-dangerous drivers (those who went the speed limit when it was higher). IOW, the worst, most dangerous speeders are *less* likely to be pulled over or fined, because officers are spending their time pulling over people doing 25, who aren’t a big threat to *law abiding* pedestrian today to begin with.

  • Bowser should figure out her appropriation request for this bill (cost of new signs, the public awareness campaign, etc etc) and then have THAT amount put towards enforcement of the existing speed limit.

    I don’t think we’re in any danger from the folks obeying the 25 mph limit. And I don’t think the people who are a danger (those who accelerate to the max between stop signs on residential blocks) will pay any attention at all.

    Waste of government resources.

  • I can’t ever seem to get above 5mph on most of the streets around where I live on account of having to squeeze by all the parked cars on either side, not to mention cars coming in the other direction.

  • A better middle ground would be to keep the standard limit as-is and then broaden the authority of DDOT to lower the limit in specific places without an act of the Council. As has been explained to me by a DDOT staffer, the standard speed limit is set by the Council, with a few statutory exceptions like school zones. If you have a small street whose limit should be lower than 25 DDOT can’t do anything about it without the Council passing a law. That’s just silly.

    However, a blanket lowering to 15 just looks like a revenue-raising measure.

  • If you don’t think this isn’t just a plan to use ticket revenue, you are not paying attention to how DC gov works.

  • I can Bike faster than 15mph. So no 20-25 is fine as long as both drivers and pedestrians actually pay attention.

  • Uuuugh! could you imagine being stuck behind a bus at 15 mph? Taxis are i am sure for this so they can bump up their meter intake.

  • 15 mph? Thats dumb. My car goes faster than that on a slight incline without me pushing on the gas pedal.

  • I am agnostic on this, but to say that lowering the limit to 15 from 25 is useless because it is difficult to enforce is kind of dumb.

    In order to make pulling someone over even worth it, someone would have to be doing at least 35 in a 25 zone. And as the original emailer notes, you’re looking at a 45% fatality rate at that point.

    Best case scenario is that people actually slow down, pedestrians are safer, and streets are quieter. Worst case, people drive the same speed, but cops actually have an incentive to pull someone over for speeding since they’ll be 20-25 over the speed limit instead of 10-15.

    Just my 0.02.

  • Have I missed something, or is this basically addressing a problem that doesn’t exist? Are lots of peds currently getting injured or killed by speeding cars? Anecdotal whining aside (“the cars on XYZ Avenue go too damn fast!”) I would say that Andrew Sullivan’s statistics are irrelevant if nobody is actually getting hit. I would prefer to see actual statistics demonstrating that there is a problem, THEN we can go about solving it.

    • Greater Greater Washington used to have a post once a week about pedestrians and cyclists struck by cars. I believe it was based on the DC Fire and EMS’s tweets. There were usually quite a few each week (around 10 a lot of weeks), and only a small number of them had any publicity. So yes, you probably have missed something.

      • 10 a week doesnt sound like a large number to me. Especially since you’re not filtering out the number of peds/bikes hit due to the fault of the ped/bike. You have to remember that GGW and their cult following do not believe there is such a thing as an at-fault pedestrian or an at-fault biker.

        • If 10 a week are hit at 30 mph that is about 230 people killed a year by cars. If you reduce the speed to 20 mph that lowers the fatalities to around 25. I’m sure those 205 people would be much better off with a lower speed. And it doesn’t matter who is at fault, the crash is more survivable as long as the car’s speed is lower.

          • Thats a lot of ifs and assumptions.

          • You are right, with a growing number of people in DC the number of pedestrians killed each year could easily be higher. But I think my assumptions are fairly reasonable. If you have a specific criticism I am open to hear it, but when talking about the potential impact of a proposed law assumptions are unavoidable.

          • You’re off by an order of magnitude. Here’s the ped fatality numbers by year for DC:

            1994 23
            1995 13
            1996 21
            1997 24
            1998 15
            1999 16
            2000 18
            2001 11
            2002 7
            2003 18
            2004 9
            2005 16
            2006 17
            2007 19
            2008 9
            2009 14

            I do think the speed limit should be lowered to 20 in most of DC.

          • @jcm- Where did you find this data? Do they have any more specific info, or just fatalities?

          • I suspect it is rare for a pedestrian to be hit by a car actually moving at the rate of 30 mph on a road where the average car is going 30 mph.

            I’d guess that most of the time when a car hits a ped, the driver sees the pedestrian too late but does manage to hit the brakes before the collision.

        • One a week is too many — if that one is you or someone you care for. So callous.

          • Great, but accidents happen and when you’re looking at policy you have to look at whether the policy will meaningfully do anything for the impact it has. Will lowering the speed limit make a meaningful impact on the number of pedestrians and bikes involved in accidents? Probably not. But if it did, should we lower the speed limit to 5mph?? Its insane. There’s no policy answer to prevent people being dumb, assholes, or making mistakes and, really, we shouldnt try.

          • Slim, I got the numbers from this Washington Post article and chart. Not much else there, I’m afraid.

      • and yet almost none of those “quite a few each week” were fatal accidents, so we must be going slow enough already.

        This ridiculous “the slower people drive, the less likely a pedestrian struck by a car will die” argument is nonsense. Those Andrew Sullivan stats are not about faster cars leading to more pedestrians being struck by cars; it’s about what happens when a pedestrian is hit. Or why the pedestrian is hit. What percentage of times is the pedestrian at fault, and not the driver of the car? Such as the 42% of pedestrians fatalities being drunk when the accident occurred (in the ten years between 2000-2010)

        So the drivers of cars are penalized because pedestrians are too stupid, or too drunk, not to throw themselves into the path of traffic?

        Another culprit seems to be Ipods.

        Tell ya what; make Ipods and walking after drinking illegal, and I’ll drive 15 mph.

      • We still tweet about this at Struck in DC.

    • The problem may not be that lots of people are killed or hurt — it’s that traffic travels too fast and the city is well down the path of applying traffic calming measures (speed bumps, reducing travel lanes, pedestrian bump-outs, additional lights, bike lanes, etc) aimed at slowing the speed of traffic inthe city.

  • For goodness sake, this is the city, not the country. Can you imagine the speed limit in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles is 15 mph? Traffic would be back up for days. Get a grip Muriel, you should have better things to do. I will be sending you an email on this.

    • The proposal is 15mph for residential streets, not all streets in DC. Arterial streets were specifically excluded from the proposal (though I don’t think a comprehensive list of those arterial streets was put forth.)

      • Good point. I might also suggest (as I did below) that the lowered speed limit be an automatic consequence of installing speed control measures like speed bumps, tables, rumble strips. Those are tools to slow traffic, and it the speed limit is no lowered on those streets it sends and inconsisent message.

    • i don’t understand your point. you think car should go fast in the city, slow in the country?

    • I think Murial’s heart and mind are in the right place on this, Charles. The blanket application to all residential streets might be overkill, but as a lawmaker she is clearly trying to come up with an approach to solve a legitimate problem. Be generous in your appreciation of her job even if you disagree with the “fix” she is proposing.

    • Huh? Speed limits are genearlly much high on country roads because there are few, if any, pedestrians. If this were the country, the proposal would be about making the speed limit 55, not 15.

  • There are some head-scratcher speed limits around here. For instance, Missouri Ave, NW which has two lanes in each direction and seems to be better configured for faster city driving (more open view of streets, fewer houses close to road, etc.), has a 25 MPH limit. But New Hampshire Ave, NW, which has one lane in each direction, more parked cars, houses close to the street, and less visibility due to hills has a 35 MPH limit. I’d love to get NH Ave’s limit decreased to 25 MPH, and get some traffic enforcement officers to enforce the limit.

    • I would like to see that mainly because of all the cement trucks that go up and down NH Ave. everyday.

      Some of them fly down the street to make the light at Webster and New Hampshire…..

      New Hampshire is a main artery but it is pretty much all residential from MD to the Petworth Metro.

      • And to cross it at Quincy where there is no light is taking your life into your hands.

        Yet hundreds do it every day because it is right next to the metro. I’d like to see at a minimum those little yellow “stop for pedestrians” signs there. I’ve seen a lot of near misses where one car stops for people in the crosswalk and cars behind impatiently pull around to blow through, nearly creaming people.

        Some enforcement every once in a while wouldn’t hurt either.

  • The only way to make drivers slow down is to make driving through residential streets too annoying. In other words, we have too many open-ended “highways” through our neighborhoods. Close off Sherman right after Euclid and you will see a dramatic decrease in the speeds of Maryland drivers speeding through on their way to downtown. Sure it would also annoy residents. But imagine how much quieter and peaceful the streets will become when the only traffic is that of your actual neighbors and not commuters.

    A man can dream, can’t he?

    • I totally agree with you. Why do I need to be afraid on cars on my street if I live there and they are just driving through. Priority to street access in neighborhood should be give to actual people who live there.

    • Maybe that area can petition for speed bumps? I’m glad DC is open to them. When I lived in New York, I discovered that it is impossible to get a speed bump installed on a street, even if 100% of residents want it

      I would also like to note that I wish they would make it illegal (or if it is, enforce it) for drivers to use the alleyways as high-speed shortcuts. Nearly been creamed a few times by cars flying out of alleys without looking. Saw a kid nearly get killed once too by a speeding car coming out of an alley.

  • There has been some success with “shared streets” and “living street” concepts in urban design. As far as I understand it, everyone has the same rights to be in the middle of the street – playing children, pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers. Look it up in wikipedia. I think it’s a great concept, and would force the speed of cars to 15 mph or less on strictly residential neighborhood streets.

  • I favor reducing the speed limit to 15mph, but only on streets that have asked for and gotten traffic control measures like speed bumps, as well as on street that front schools, parks and recreation centers. Keeping the speed at 25 is stupicd on a residential street with speed bumps — when cars hit those things at 25 it damages the car and the bump and makes a huge noise.

    I live on a street with a park/rec center, and we had speed bumps installed several years ago (I welcomed them). with all the young people walking along and across my street we need better traffic control.

    Agree with the sentiment that enforcement is the key issue here, though.

  • Having done plenty of speed enforcement in my day, I’d say that:

    1) Despite what people think, most people drive the speed limit on residential streets. it’s just your perception of what’s too fast doesn’t jive with what speed many drivers are actually going.

    2) From an enforcement perspective, shooting LIDAR on a residential street is nigh impossible without a two officer team: One to stand on the sidewalk and one in a vehicle to pull the car over. It’s difficult to do solo in a vehicle because most of the time cars will see your vehicle and slow down, defeating the purpose of speed enforcement.

    3) Other officers might have been trained differently, but when I was trained in using LIDAR, I was told to allow pull over more than 5 mph to allow for any issues arising from environmental factors that would impact the speed measurement.

    4) In reality, lowering the speed limit will realistically mean that I’d be pulling you over for going somewhere around 25 in a 15. I generally wouldn’t pull someone over for less than 10 mph because it doesn’t really pass a mental cost benefit analysis (i.e. the time it takes to pull off, pull someone over, conduct a stop, issue a ticket, and go back to your spot). I’d rather pull over the guys doing 10+ over the limit and rolling through the stop sign while they’re at it than the person doing 30 in a 25 zone.

    On the street, the best things I’ve seen that reduce speeding on residential streets are narrower streets and speed bumps. I personally hate speed bumps, but they do the job in making me drive slower.

    • saf

      “It’s difficult to do solo in a vehicle because most of the time cars will see your vehicle and slow down, defeating the purpose of speed enforcement.”

      Huh, I thought the purpose of speed enforcement was to get cars to slow down.

      • If you want people to drive fast everywhere unless they see a cop, then putting visible police cars on some streets is a great solution.

        If you want people to think that if they drive more than 10mph over the speed limit, they will probably get a ticket, and thus convince them to drive slowly everywhere, you have to be a little sneakier.

  • The proposal is completely idiotic. Unreasonable lowering of speeds creates more safety issues as 99% of people aren’t going to slow down meaningfully and the 1% who do will result in everyone else doing dangerous things to get around them. MPD speed traffic enforcement is ENTIRELY about revenue (they’ve basically stopped writing speed tickets since they got the cameras) and if they actually cared about pedestrian safety they would put the cameras on residential streets instead of divided highways with artificially low speed limits.

    Improving pedestrian safety requires better enforcement of crossing restrictions – both for pedestrians and drivers. And as long as bicyclists retain the mentality that it’s OK for them to run stop signs and lights at will, they represent a huge safety problem as well. I was particularly enamored with the cyclist who got mad at me because he wanted to barrel through a four way stop and I failed to wait for him.

    Realistically, this bill is all about increasing camera revenue. I can’t imagine that it will have any other impact. Well, it will encourage people to move houses and offices to the suburbs. DC public transit is only useful to a small percentage of the city.

  • I’m all for 15mph on residential streets because this basically means people would just drive 25 anyway. As it is, people drive 35; when I drive, and I’m doing ~30-32 mph, there’s always some idiot on my tail, trying to get me to drive faster.

    That said, they don’t enforce the 25mph law, so reducing it seems to be a waste of time.

    For pedestrian safety, I would prefer to see them making “right on red” illegal (except where posted) like in New York. I think this would have a much greater impact , and it’s easier to enforce than speed limits. Also, make blocking a crosswalk or intersection a fine __and__ points.

  • why the jump all the way down to 15? with the exception of the speed trap on piney branch, do DC police even pull over cars for speeding?

    • I’ve never fully understood the complaints about “speed traps”. I mean, if you go ~5 mph over the limit, you won’t get a ticket (at least I never have). Driving faster than that is just unsafe on PBP.

      • No, its not. Driving 35 on PBP is not unsafe.

        As far as DC police pulling cars over for speeding, I don’t know if they honestly do. At all. Ever.

        Just for reference sakes, the speed trap on PBP is run by the park police.

        • I’ve seen deer, joggers, and cyclists on Piney Branch, and it’s just not wide enough for cars to be passing each other at 35mph from opposite directions to be safe.

          It’s also a tiny stretch of road, so going 25 instead of 35 saves you probably 35 seconds. Not worth it.

          • Hmm. Your arguement is definitely more sound than mine haha.

            I disagree with you that because there are deer and people on the streets at times it is not safe, but we can certainly agree to disagree. I do feel that the problem here in other places (neighborhoods specifically) is not the 25 speed limit, it is the ridiculous lack of enforcement. We got so lucky to move into a street with a speed bump, but the stop-sign in front of our house gets woefully ignored quite often.

          • I agree that it’s lack of enforcement in general in DC.

            I will also say that on Piney Branch, even though I’m pretty opposed to speeding, I understand that people often need to during rush hour to get to work/home, especially when a kid needs to be picked up, pet taken out, etc.

            The cyclists/joggers are usually more visible on the weekends, and I don’t understand why people feel the need to speed on a Sunday morning. In general, I wish they would either completely close Rock Creek to traffic north of the Zoo, or lower the overall speed limit to 10-15 on the weekends from 7am-7pm.

            I also wish Rock Creek were more closed off in general, but I understand it’s a needed bypass for cars during the week, and closing it would just make traffic even worse elsewhere… I think everyone can agree that if we had decent mass transit, life would be better.

  • So what would consitute reckless driving if the speed limit were 15 mph? 20 mph would be 33% over the speed limit.

  • 15 mph is the dumbest idea I have ever heard. Pedestrians need to learn how to respect drivers (don’t cross unless there’s a walk sign, walk the extra 20 feet to get to the crosswalk) and drivers need to learn to respect pedestrians (slow down, be extra viligent in high pedestrian areas).

    I take the metro to work but drive everywhere else. Let me tell you, I think sometimes rogue pedestrians are worse than the people that go way over the speed limit.

    I think the problem is that too many people ONLY walk and too many people ONLY drive. You gotta respect the people you SHARE the road with!

    • I think the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard is making pedestrians cross the street at crosswalks in residential neighborhoods, since this is what we are talking about. You should try walking and see for yourself if you are going to give “respect” to people driving through the street you live on.

  • I love that the person in the picture is jaywalking.

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