THE COMMUTE: Last week, Sheepshead Bites reported on legislation being considered by the City Council to lower the speed limit on city residential streets narrower than 60 feet wide from 30 mph to 25 mph. It is a compromise to legislation proposed by City Councilmember David Greenfield to lower the citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 20 mph. The City Council is currently revising the language of the law, which they hope to enact before Mayor Bloomberg leaves office.
The law is poorly thought out and is a hysterical reaction to the huge numbers of pedestrians who are killed or injured everyday by automobiles. It is a very big problem fueled by the fact that most of these fatalities receive only a cursory police investigation. If drugs, alcohol, or cell phones are not involved and the driver has a clean record, usually no charges are filed. It seems that every day we hear of another car going “out of control.” What does that really mean? Are the cars possessed?
Will lowering the speed limit solve anything? I don’t think so. Unless your car is hit by another car, there is no reason for any driver to “lose control” unless there is something mechanically wrong. Losing control is usually the result of human error such as hitting the accelerator instead of the brake, excessive speeding, inadequate driver education, distracted or drowsy diving, driving under the influence, the sun in your eyes, or road hazards — not that speed limits that are too high.
What Is A Speed Limit?
A speed limit is a guide to approximately how fast you should travel in optimal weather and roadway conditions. It does not mean that driving 10 miles above the speed limit is unsafe or that driving under the speed limit is safe. Too many non-drivers believe that if the speed limit is 30 mph, traveling at 35 mph is hazardous. Not true. Just because the speed limit is 30 does not mean it is always safe to do 30. Under certain conditions, 35 or 40 may be perfectly safe. On the other hand, it may be safe to drive at only at 10 or 15 mph although the limit is 30. Contrary to public opinion, most drivers realize this and know what speed is safe to drive at. That is why so many cars speed. That doesn’t make them dangerous drivers or “murderers” as some non-drivers like to categorize motorists. You will often find roads where everyone is “speeding,” but is still driving safely.
Yes, there some who believe the speed limit is the speed of the car ahead of you. If no one is ahead of you, then you can go as fast as you want, 90, 100 or more. The ones who are constantly weaving in and out of traffic to gain a precious few seconds going at 60 mph or more when everyone else is doing 50. Those are the drivers that pose a hazard to themselves and everyone around them. They are rarely caught or punished. Similarly, if everyone is going 10 miles over the speed limit, the car who abides by the limit is the one posing the danger. When I was taught to drive, my instructor told me that it is best to travel at the same speed most other cars are traveling.
Many years ago, I was driving on the New England Thruway during a blizzard. The speed limit was 65. I was doing 30 and was pulled over by a police officer for driving “too fast!” I was instructed to slow down to 20, which I did. On narrow streets with parking on both sides and a travel lane of only eight feet wide, you should not be traveling more than 15 or 20 mph, although the limit is 30. On many other streets where the limit is 30, during optimal conditions when there is little traffic and visibility is excellent, it is perfectly safe to travel at 40 mph. It is not possible to post different speed limits on each street for every road condition, so 30 mph was chosen as the average speed that is safe under optimal conditions.
Why The Proposed Law Is Poorly Thought Out
The speed limit should be determined by the width of the roadway, the traffic lanes and other factors. Proponents of the law use the statistic that “a person has an 80 percent chance of surviving being hit by a car traveling 30 mph, while the same person’s chances of survival increase to 98 percent when the vehicle is going 20 mph.” However, is that adequate justification to lower the limit to 25 where the survival rate may be 89 percent? Why not lower the speed limit to 10 mph and increase the survival rate to 99 percent? I am sure some would be in favor of that — the same people who believe everyone should be riding a bicycle and no one should be driving.
Yes, we need to maximize survival rates, but the way to do that is to prevent accidents in the first place by minimizing road hazards such as lanes disappearing without warning, installing better signage, having proper lighting (not dark stretches of road for a year), reducing distracted driving, better lane markings, installing more road safety measures, adequate investigation of accidents and punishment for bad drivers, better driver education, requiring periodic retaking of the written or road test, etc. Not a blanket lowering of the speed limit.
Such A Law Will Have Far Reaching Implications
Local bus service is slow. Many bus routes, such as the B49 on Ocean Avenue use residential streets. Lowering the maximum speed a bus may travel from 30 mph to 25 mph will greatly reduce its average speed, cutting it perhaps from 10 mph to eight mph. That would increase travel times by 20 percent. Yet we are spending millions on Select Bus Service (SBS) to increase bus speeds by less than that amount. Does that make sense?
It also means having to wait longer for a bus or putting more buses on the route to maintain the same schedule, which costs extra money and increases the likelihood that a low usage route will be discontinued. When speed cameras will be placed on streets, instead of someone being ticketed for traveling 36 mph, summonses for violating a 25 mph will be meted out for those traveling 31 mph. (A five mph leeway will be given.) This will result in a huge amount of additional revenue for the city or another tax for the middle class.
The few that will drive at 25 where there are no cameras will risk road rage from those who will continue to drive at 30 mph. It will also lead to more accidents by cars attempting to illegally go around a car traveling at the 25 mph speed limit. It already happens on Oriental Boulevard. Just try driving at 25 mph and see how many cars will pass you in the zebra stripes.
Why Speed Limits Are Currently Not Respected
I stated in an earlier article that speed limits in rural areas are respected because they make sense. A 25 mph speed limit at a curve means you will go over the cliff if you try it at 35 mph. In New York City, in some cases speed limits are already unrealistically too low. On Queens Boulevard, often dubbed “the boulevard of death,” the speed limit was lowered to 30 mph when 40 mph is perfectly safe if road conditions permit. In fact, most cars still drive at 35 to 40 mph in spite of the 30 mph speed limit.
Cameras would force everyone to travel at the speed limit, greatly increasing congestion. Proponents of the lower speed limit on Queens Boulevard point to the fact that the accident rate has been reduced since the speed limit was lowered, although there is no cause and effect. The high number of accidents was caused by pedestrians illegally crossing during mid-block and inadequate walk times to cross the street. The walk time was increased and fences were installed to prevent jaywalking. That is what reduced the accident rate, not lowering the speed limit, which no one abides by anyway.
Another reason why speed limits are ignored has to do with highway work zones. When lanes are narrowed, the speed limit is lowered from 50 mph to 35 mph. That may make sense when all lanes are occupied. However, when traffic is light, and there are no cars in adjacent lanes, the narrower lanes shouldn’t matter. Most drivers realize that so they ignore the lower speed limits in spite of the warnings regarding double fines and license suspension for a second offense.
Also, when work is completed, it takes DOT three to six months to restore the normal speed limits. Work on the Belt Parkway has been complete in many portions for three months, yet the 35 mph speed limit remains. All drivers ignore it and virtually every car is going 60 mph, which is perfectly safe and is the speed that the road is designed for.
The sign to mark the end of the work zone is placed 600 feet after where the work zone actually ends. So the speed limit was lowered for an area where no work was done or is planned. In fact, you have to slow down after the work zone ends because the lanes are narrower and in worse condition, not speed up.
On the Gowanus, the work zone speed seems to have been made permanent. Road work was completed perhaps a year ago and a 30 mph road work speed limit still exists. Of, course everyone ignores it, doing twice that speed because it seems like a bad joke.
Further, marking the three-quarter mile area before the Belt Parkway as a work zone actually poses a hazard and increases the likelihood of an accident because there is no exit speed limit posted at the exit. DOT assumes everyone is already going at 30 mph, which is not the case. No one is doing 30 and anyone attempting to exit at highway speed is risking a bad accident.
Many motorists do not pay attention to speed limits because there are many cases where they are too low. Therefore, they become accustomed to ignoring all speed limits altogether. Lowering the citywide speed limit will not result in safer streets. It will result in unintended consequences. The proposed law needs to be modified to only affect residential streets narrower than 30 feet wide, not 60 feet wide. Then it may help.
Senior citizens legally are not permitted to sit in city playgrounds to get some sun or to watch children play unless they are with their own grandchildren. That activity gives many pleasure, because it brings back memories of happier times. A few years ago some men were given $100 fines for playing chess on chessboards in a city playground provided by the city for that purpose. They were fined because they entered a city playground unaccompanied by a child, which is against the law since the 1990s. Some children in the park heard the news and were disheartened because on other occasions those men taught them to play chess. The law was a hysterical reaction by the City Council to a rise in pedophilia. We don’t need another hysterical reaction to an increase in pedestrian fatalities that will not solve a very real problem.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.