Nearly twice as many people have died this year in traffic collisions than in 2018 as Seattle continues to stall in meeting its stated goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.
The latest count comes from newly released city data as Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday that her administration will lower speed limits on all arterials — busy streets with a dividing line — to 25 mph. Speed limits were lowered on downtown streets in 2016.
Durkan announced the speed limit changes and other efforts at a senior center on Rainier Avenue South, where the speed limit on much of the road is 30 mph. On that street, a 78-year-old man riding a bicycle was killed in February and a 59-year-old man was seriously injured while crossing in September.
The city has begun making improvements on the corridor, including redesigning portions of the street.
Twenty-five people have died and 153 have been seriously injured in crashes so far this year, according to the latest available preliminary data from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). The vast majority of those killed were pedestrians.
While serious injuries are down from last year, the numbers of deaths and injuries haven’t moved much over the last 10 years.
In recent months, a hit-and-run driver in Lake City killed a 77-year-old woman, at least four pedestrians were killed in West Seattle and Aurora Avenue saw five pedestrian fatalities. On Friday afternoon, a 29-year-old man died in a motorcycle crash in Ballard.
“It’s been unacceptable to us,” said SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe.
Neither Aurora Avenue nor Lake City Way will see immediate changes because Seattle must request state permission to lower speed limits on those routes.
Slowing speed limits on busy city streets has been a promise from Seattle City Hall since at least 2016, when the city made 25 mph the “default” on unmarked arterials and changed signs downtown to 25 mph. But many arterials outside downtown were not changed and today have speed limits of up to 45 mph, according to SDOT.
SDOT now plans to install 2,000 to 3,000 new 25 mph signs over the next 18 months on nearly all city arterials. Installing the new signs will cost about $1 million, according to the agency. There will be more of them than existing signs, about every quarter- to half-mile.
Seattle Police will conduct limited “emphasis patrols,” according to SDOT, which will include plainclothes officers attempting to cross the street to find drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. Police plan to mostly issue warnings, not tickets.
Seattle police used the same incognito strategy a decade ago, reportedly issuing 32 citations at one location in one hour to drivers failing to yield to pedestrians.
The patrols will be funded with revenue from red-light cameras, said SDOT Vision Zero coordinator Jim Curtin. Seattle will also add new red-light cameras and cameras in five more school zones over the next two years.
The so-called emphasis patrols for traffic safety follow Durkan’s announcement earlier this year of similar patrols to address crime and “fear of crime” in certain neighborhoods. Those patrols faced some skepticism from the Seattle City Council and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Durkan’s administration has faced criticism as numbers of injuries and deaths have failed to substantially decline. Former Mayor Ed Murray signed on to the Vision Zero pledge in 2015, after 18 people died in 2014, and his predecessor, Mike McGinn, led a similar campaign under the banner “Be Super Safe Seattle.”
This year, Durkan directed about $17 million from the sale of the Mercer Mega Block to bike, pedestrian and traffic calming projects.
“Right now, the city hasn’t stepped up,” said Lee Bruch, a retired architect and advocate for safety on Aurora Avenue.
On Aurora, the speed limit between Green Lake and the North Highway 99 tunnel portal is as high as 40 mph. More enforcement is needed to get people to slow down, Bruch said.
“You design a street to be a major highway, people are going to drive like it’s a major highway,” he said.
Past SDOT tests found few drivers actually slowed down when the department marked 20 mph zones, leading one local engineer to call posting only speed limit signs “a placebo.”
SDOT still contends speed-limit signs can make a significant difference on their own. Crashes have fallen between 34% and 44% in three areas where the city has reduced speeds, including Greenwood Avenue North, according to SDOT.
Nationally, studies have found that about 5% of pedestrians would die when struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph while about 40% would die when struck by a vehicle traveling 30 mph, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Lowering speed limits is “moving in the right direction,” said Anna Zivarts, program director of Rooted in Rights, a disability-rights organization. The city should go further, Zivarts said, by exploring banning right turns on red or restricting left turns, in which drivers rush to cross oncoming traffic.
Durkan plans to announce the speed-limit changes and police patrols, but is also likely to emphasize work already long underway by the city. For example, SDOT is ahead of schedule installing intersection signals that give pedestrians a head start in crosswalks and plans to do more public education about Vision Zero and convene a task force with public health officials.
“It’s a great collection of first steps,” said Gordon Padelford, the executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, “and we hope to see follow-through over the upcoming years to implement street redesigns, which require time, funding, and political leadership.”