Florida is leading the nation in lowering speeds to reduce crashes; will other states follow?

By Rayla Bellis

The Florida Department of Transportation plans to lower speed limits and design speeds in some areas from their current 40-45 mph limit to a 25 mph limit to improve roadway safety. They will start with a pilot program in the Tampa Bay region. This makes FDOT one of the first states to tackle head-on the safety impacts of vehicle speeds.

Speed is one of the most significant factors in roadway crashes and fatalities in the U.S., and an especially serious problem for pedestrians and bicyclists. A 2011 study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nine out of 10 pedestrians survive a crash with a car going 20 mph. However, only five out of 10 pedestrians survive when hit at 30 mph, and just one in 10 survive when hit at least 40 mph.

FDOT has been working to improve conditions for people walking and biking since 2014 through the department’s Complete Streets implementation initiative, which aims to address the state’s ongoing pedestrian danger epidemic. FDOT is also considering other strategies for reducing vehicle speeds, including reducing lane widths to 10 feet in some urban areas. The department will be finalizing its plans later this year based on feedback submitted by stakeholders in response to the department’s draft FDOT Design Manual and new draft Complete Streets Handbook.

FDOT’s government liaison administrator Stephen Benson noted, “When people drive slower, it improves safety. If we don’t design roads like a highway, they won’t drive on the roads like a highway.”

Other states may soon follow FDOT’s lead. The National Transportation Safety Board released a study on July 25 linking speeding to 112,580 highway crash fatalities between 2005-2014, roughly equal to the number who died in alcohol-involved crashes over the same period.

Caption: 112,580 people were killed in speeding-related crashes from 2005 to 2014. Image: NTSB

Caption: 112,580 people were killed in speeding-related crashes from 2005 to 2014. Image: NTSB

​“Substantial reductions in highway crashes cannot be achieved without a renewed emphasis on the impact of speeding,” said NTSB Director of Research and Engineering Jim Ritter.  “Lowering speeding-related highway deaths requires more effective use of countermeasures to prevent these crashes.”

NTSB presented recommendations from the study at a recent board meeting, including a recommendation that FHWA replace the current 85th percentile rule for determining speed limits with guidelines proven to improve safety. The NTSB study notes, “Raising speed limits to match the 85th percentile speed can result in unintended consequences. It may lead to higher operating speeds, and thus a higher 85th percentile speed. In general, there is not strong evidence that the 85th percentile speed within a given traffic flow equates to the speed with the lowest crash involvement rate for all road types.”

NTSB also noted that while speeding is one of the most common factors in motor vehicle crashes in the US, it is an underappreciated problem. The public is less aware of the risks of speeding compared with other risky driving behaviors, and it doesn’t carry the same social stigma as drunk and distracted driving.

NTBS hopes to change this perception by bringing the results of their study into the spotlight. “The simple truth is that speeding makes a crash more likely. In a crash that’s speeding related, you’re more likely to be injured, your injuries are more likely to be severe, and you’re more likely to die,” NTSB Acting Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in his statement at the board meeting. “And that’s true whether you’re the speeding driver, another driver, a passenger, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian.”

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.