A cyclist has died on Seattle's Dexter Avenue, something that might have been prevented if the speed limit had been lower, writes guest columnist Alan Durning. He argues the Legislature should let cities lower speed limits without costly traffic studies and red tape.
ON Thursday afternoon, I got a pit in my stomach when I found strings of yellow police tape blocking the bike commute on Seattle’s Dexter Avenue. I learned over the hours that followed, with all of Seattle, that an SUV had struck and fatally injured Michael Wang, a PATH photographer of my age, in his forties. Wang had been riding in the Dexter bike lane at Thomas Street when the SUV sped across traffic, slammed into him and fled.
Such calamities are far too common. In 2009, traffic collisions killed 1,095 people — including 106 pedestrians and cyclists — in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among American children and young adults, and the group of pedestrians most in jeopardy is seniors.
In almost all of these deaths, speed is a critical variable. Some 91 percent of 2009 Northwest traffic deaths occurred on streets with speed limits of 30 mph, like Dexter, or higher. Yet for all that cities try to improve street safety, with cross walks, signals and traffic circles, state law binds them in red tape if they want to do the simplest thing: lower speed limits.
Olympia dictates speed limits for each category of city roadway. Localities cannot lower speeds without first extensive and expensive speed and engineering studies. That’s right: Costly studies are required just to make commonsense safety improvements.
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The rest of the Northwest trusts its localities more than we do. In June, Oregon passed a law giving cities discretion to reduce speed to 20 mph on residential roadways.
Washington’s Legislature took up a similar bill this year, HR 1217, the “local speed limit bill.” It garnered bipartisan support and passed the House unanimously, but the Senate failed to move it out of committee. The bill would have let city officials use their judgment about establishing 20 mph residential zones.
Washington’s bill was a start. A fuller measure would have taken Idaho’s approach, letting cities adjust speed limits however they see fit. Or British Columbia’s approach, which welcomes cities to push speeds as low as 12 mph. Until Washington cities have the authority of their counterparts in B.C. and Idaho, fixing streets like Dexter will remain needlessly slow and burdensome.
Seattle, like communities across the state, is striving to make things safer. We’re painting bike lanes, installing crosswalks, and even organizing walking school buses. Yet state law handicaps us by making it costly and cumbersome to calm traffic.
The national nonprofit Transportation for America has found that only 1 percent of pedestrian deaths during the last decade occurred on streets with posted speeds of 20 mph or lower. The laws of physics are the reason. Newton showed that doubling speed requires quadrupling kinetic energy. It also quadruples stopping distance, and it radically increases the crushing force of impact. A 1994 study from the United Kingdom estimated that if a vehicle is traveling at 20 mph when it hits a pedestrian, the chance of death for the pedestrian is 5 percent. At the Dexter Avenue speed limit of 30 mph, the chance of death multiplies ninefold, to 45 percent. At 40 mph, the chance of death rises to 85 percent.
A lower speed limit might or might not have saved Michael Wang’s life. The hit-and-run driver of the brown SUV that killed him could well have been oblivious to posted speeds. We cannot know. What we can know, and what the spontaneous memorial that has emerged at Dexter and Thomas reminds us, is that it’s time for Olympia to get out of the way and let us make our streets safer.
In Seattle, no one should die for riding his bike.
Alan Durning directs Sightline Institute, the Northwest’s sustainability research center.