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State of Speed Bills in 2023: Slower Speeds Create Safer Streets for Cyclists

America’s roads are deadly – for everyone. In 2021, an estimated 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes. This was a 16-year high and consistent with a decade of increasing traffic fatalities, particularly for people biking or walking who accounted for 8,327 of those fatalities. 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. 

In response to worsening traffic deaths, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) published its first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy in 2020. Among its five objectives is the objective of Safer Speeds, recognizing the physics involved because, “People have physical limits for tolerating crash forces before death or serious injury occurs” and crash forces are determined by the speed of vehicles and the mass of vehicles involved in a crash.

Internationally, public health organizations have called for reducing vehicle speeds to the equivalent of 20 miles per hour (mph) or less where vehicles mix with people biking and walking to prioritize safety. Safe speeds are a central component of traffic safety, especially in urban and residential areas where vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians interact most – but too often speed itself is missing from traffic safety discussions at all levels of government. Instead, discussions often focus on speeding without reaching the underlying dangers of speed itself. Examining actual speed limits, state laws, and engineering guidance in the US, it’s clear that 20 mph speed limits in urban areas are rare, and it can be challenging for municipalities that understand the benefits of lower speeds to lawfully reduce speed limits. These higher speed limits lead to increased traffic fatalities, specifically those most vulnerable on the roads – cyclists and pedestrians.

In this legislative session, several states had bills that would make it easier for localities to lower speed limits in urban and residential areas. Unfortunately, a few states also proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for local municipalities to lower speed limits and create safer streets in their communities. Let’s take a closer look at the legislation. 

The Bills

Oregon, HB 2095 is a good bill signed into law and is part of a 13-year effort to give cities in the Beaver State the ability to lower speed limits. The bill expands the authority of cities to set designated speeds for certain residential streets to speed limits that are up to 10 miles per hour lower than the statutory speed but not less than 20 mph. While this is an excellent step in the right direction, the authority granted under this law only applies to highways located in a “residence district,” which limits the use of this law to lower speed limits. The bill also authorizes all cities to elect to operate photo radar if the city pays the costs of operating photo radar and eliminates restrictions on the number of hours per day photo radar may be used in any location.   

Alabama, SB 33 is a bad bill signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey.  The law prohibits a municipality from setting speed limits on county-maintained streets within its corporate limits in certain circumstances and says it makes nonsubstantive, technical revisions to update the existing code language to the current style. That nonsubstantive, technical revision removes the word “safe” from existing language for unclear reasons. Finally, the bill requires municipalities to conduct traffic studies and submit speed changes to county engineers for approval on county-maintained roads within the municipality. 

Illinois, HB 3530 is an example of a good bill that would lower municipality speed limits and make roads safer for the most vulnerable users. The bill would have set the default speed limit at 20 mph instead of 30 mph within an urban district and 10 mph in an alley within an urban district. Additionally, the legislation provided guidelines that a county, municipality, or township with speed enforcement authority may only issue warnings for violations during the first 60 days after enactment. Unfortunately, the Illinois legislative session has ended for the year, meaning this bill will not become law in 2023. 

Illinois, HB 2131 is another good bill introduced in the Prairie State. The legislation is expansive but in general calls for the development of a “Zero Traffic Fatalities Taskforce,” with one outcome of this task force being a report by January 1, 2025, that will include: (1) The existing process for establishing speed limits, including a detailed discussion on where speed limits are allowed to deviate from the 85th percentile speed. (2) Existing policies on how to reduce speeds on local streets and roads. (3) A recommendation as to whether an alternative to using the 85th percentile for determining speed limits should be considered, and if so, what alternatives should be considered. (4) Engineering recommendations on how to increase vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle safety. While this bill doesn’t directly lower speed limits, it does question how speed limits are set and establishes a clear goal of zero traffic fatalities.  Unlike the above legislation from Illinois, this bill has passed both houses and now awaits Governor Pritzker’s signature or veto. 

New York, SB 2422, or “Sammy’s Law,” is another example of a good bill that would lower speed limits where vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists mix. In short, the bill would make it easier for New York City to lower its speed limit to 20 mph by easing current restrictions that prevent the city from doing so. This legislation passed the New York State Senate and has been delivered to the state assembly. New York has a year-long legislative session, so the League is optimistic we will see this bill become law in 2023. 

“Sammy’s Law — named for my son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, who was killed by a reckless driver when he was only twelve — would allow New York City to finally set its own speed limits, instead of the New York State Legislature. Safer speed limits are a simple, common-sense, proven tool to save lives. Instead of maintaining a deadly status quo, state lawmakers in Albany should either incentivize setting safer speed limits or grant local control. Sammy’s Law is also extremely popular, with support from the mayor, the governor, a super-majority of City Council, the majority of New Yorkers, and even a majority of the State Assembly. While it’s disappointing that the Speaker of the State Assembly never called a vote on Sammy’s Law, we won’t stop fighting until our streets are safe for everyone.”

From Sammy’s mother, Amy Cohen

Texas, HB 2224 is a good bill that addresses many barriers to lowering speed limits in the Lone Star State. The legislation would change the minimum speed limit from 25 to 20 mph if the governing body determines that the prima facie speed limit on the highway is unreasonable or unsafe. Furthermore, the bill adds that a municipality is not required to perform an engineering or traffic investigation to declare a lower speed limit under this subsection if the street is located in a residence district. HB 2224 passed the state House and was referred to the Senate before Texas’s 2023 legislative session ended. Though this bill is likely dead, Texas does have special sessions remaining this year, so it’s possible we could see this legislation progress through the state Senate.

What’s Ahead:  Slow Roads Save Lives

The League of American Bicyclists recognizes speed is a central component of traffic safety, especially in areas where cyclists, pedestrians, and vehicles share roadways and have a higher probability of contacting one another. Think about this – 90% of people struck by a vehicle going 20 mph or slower are likely to survive. However, increase the speed to 30 mph, and that number drops to a 75% chance of survival. The higher the speed a vehicle is traveling, whether because of an artificially high speed limit or a driver’s excessive speeding, the less chance there is a person will survive being struck. 

The League joins the many international public health organizations, municipalities, and countries that have called for reducing vehicle speeds to 20 miles per hour or less, where vehicles mix with people biking and walking to prioritize safety. We want to work with state and local organizations to help lower speed limits to 20mph in urban and residential areas. 

Our focus in these “slow roads” efforts is on the streets and roads where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars interact, not on highways (or freeways) and other limited access roadways. Stay tuned for the official campaign kick-off event next month and to join us in our national call to action.