State Laws For Slow Roads
In September, the League of American Bicyclists (League) launched the Slow Roads Save Lives Campaign. The goal of the campaign is to create safer roads where people biking, walking, using mobility devices, and driving can all get to their destination safely by advocating for slower speeds and improved road design to match. One method of achieving this goal is passing legislation at the state level that facilitates lowering speeds to 20mph and ultimately designing safer roads for all users.
A Legislative Framework
When it comes to Slow Roads legislation, there is no one-size-fits-all model law. The League understands each state and community is different, with different existing legal structures creating the need for different approaches to reach a common goal. With this in mind, we believe an effective Slow Roads law includes the following components:
- The law should focus on clearly allowing slower speeds when a community wants them, not imposing them through legislative fiat
- The law should clearly address common complications that would introduce uncertainty if not otherwise addressed, like traffic study requirements, district determinations, and sign requirements
- The law may address the “speed trap” concerns to ensure implementation that seeks to achieve safer streets, not raise revenues
- The law may address implementation challenges or needs, like transitioning existing opt-in calming programs to more universal programs, using existing funding programs to implement slower speed designs, and other issues related to state or local practices.
In short, we support legislation that provides a clear process for communities that want to implement 20 MPH speed limits. While quickly lowering posted and unposted speed limits through a legislative change is possible, our recommended approach is to focus on removing the barriers to 20 mph speed limits at the grassroots level rather than a top-down change.
The Slow Roads movement’s goal isn’t just a new number on a sign. We seek legislative changes that empower communities to lower their own speed limits, indicating to agencies that slower speeds and safer road design should be pursued everywhere to save lives.
Enacted Slow Roads Legislation
Several states already have Slow Roads-aligned laws on the books. While none of these examples accomplish every goal, they show actions states have already taken to lower speeds and improve safety for all road users.
Passed in 2019, this law authorizes cities across the state to designate speed limits as low as 20 mph on highways under a city’s jurisdiction that are not arterial highways and are located in a residence district, including territory that is not a business district that is contiguous to the highway and has access to dwellings provided by alleys. What this means is that cities across Oregon can lower their speed limits to 20 mph where people live, creating slower, safer roads for people to ride, walk, and drive.
Takeaway: 30 states have statutory residential district speed limits and all call for speeds higher than 20 mph. Enabling 20 mph speed limits in those districts could have a high impact on safer roads.
Just this year, Illinois passed HB 2131. This law requires the state’s Secretary of Transportation to establish and convene the Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force to develop a process to adopt policies to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. The law also requires the state’s Secretary of Transportation to prepare and submit a report of findings based on the Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force’s efforts to the General Assembly. The key to this law lies in what must be analyzed in the Secretary’s report — which includes recommending alternatives to using the 85th percentile speed of drivers to set speed limits, analyzing current policies for lowering speeds on local streets and roads, and engineering recommendations for increasing vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle safety.
Takeaway: Most states make references to traffic studies in their statutory speed limits, meaning the issues examined by this Task Force are likely to be present in most states and not yet formally addressed.
In 2021, California passed a law that created two new areas that enable and justify lower speed limits. One is a “safety corridor” that is defined in the California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as a “roadway segment within an overall roadway network where the highest number of serious injury and fatality crashes occur.” The second is a “business activity district” defined as central or neighborhood downtowns and urban villages that meet several other requirements. This law allows municipalities to lower speed limits in high crash areas and areas where a high number of cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles mix. California is one of two states where their speed limit law explicitly references the 85th percentile method of speed limit setting, and this law provided limited exceptions to using that method in order to allow slower, safer, speed limits.
Takeaway: These two new types of areas with special speed limit rules are unique to California, but the average state has more than five areas where speed limits, and their related rules, differ. Only eight states don’t create special speed limit rules for different areas, so most states can use this approach.
The North Star State passed legislation in 2019 that allowed cities to lower speed limits on city streets without conducting an engineering or traffic investigation. However, the legislature did impose other requirements, including that the speed limit must be changed consistently and understandably, appropriate signs must be erected, and the city must develop a procedure that includes a safety, engineering, and traffic analysis that considers national urban speed limit guidance and studies, local traffic crashes, and methods to communicate the change to the public effectively. These additional requirements may undermine the authority granted to cities and the goal of lowering speed limits.
Takeaway: Minnesota has a very well-documented examination of speed limit-setting practices and this legislation spurred many of its larger communities to lower speed limits to 20 mph. Its methodical approach may help where there is skepticism toward more rapid change.
America’s roadways are deadly. In 2021, the U.S. reached a 16-year high with an estimated 42,915 people dying in motor vehicle traffic crashes. In the same year, the number of bicyclist fatalities reached its highest level since 1975 after increasing by almost 60% since its lowest level in 2010. We also know that regardless of crash cause, speed ALWAYS plays a factor. Physics tells us that the faster a vehicle travels, the more force it carries into any crash that might occur—making a crash at 40 miles per hour 500% more likely to kill a person walking than a crash at 20 mph.
We must and can do better to protect all roadway users regardless of whether they are in a vehicle, walking, riding a bike, or using another mobility device. While the states highlighted here have taken steps in the right direction, we must see more states pass Slow Roads-aligned legislation and design their roads to match. Check out this blog to learn about states that attempted to pass Slow Roads-aligned legislation this year.
It takes all of us, from the state house to your house, to truly make our roads a safer place for all. Take the Slow Roads Pledge and stay tuned for action alerts so you can get involved, and remember Slow Roads Save Lives.