Lower speed limits?

At the request of safety advocates and the city of Boston, and working with other senators, I added language to the Senate version of the recent municipal modernization bill that will give municipalities more flexibility to set lower speed limits.

Currently, under state law, vehicles may not be driven above speeds that are “reasonable and proper”, depending on conditions. The maximum “reasonable and proper” speed under ideal conditions in thickly settled areas is 30 miles per hour. All of my district is “thickly settled” — having houses closer together than 200 feet. Municipalities can set lower limits in school zones, but do not have general flexibility to set lower limits.

To set a lower limit (or higher limit) under current law, a municipality must go through an arduous procedure to establish the “85th percentile speed” based on actual speed studies. In other words, the town must do expensive traffic monitoring to compute the speed at or below which 85% of the vehicles are actually operating on the particular road segment. On some roads, this creates real risk that an effort to lower speed limits could end up increasing speed limits. It is very consistent with the spirit of the municipal modernization bill to make it easier for municipalities to lower limits without so much red tape.

The new language would give municipal authorities — the selectmen, or in a city, the traffic director — authority to set 25 mile per hour limits in thickly settled zones without further approval. They would also be able to lower the limit to 20 miles per hour in selected safety zones. The new powers would take effect only upon a vote of the municipality’s legislative body — the town meeting or town/city council.

From a safety standpoint, there is no question that lower speeds are desirable. In congested areas, the probability of collision goes up with higher speeds. Also, the severity of injuries from collisions goes up dramatically with speed.

The practical question is: how can we actually change the speed of vehicles? All of my experience as a driver and as someone involved in setting speed limits is that people drive at the speed they feel comfortable. That varies according to mood and road conditions and, of great importance, according to road design. Long straightaways with wide lanes, especially with green lights visible ahead, induce drivers to accelerate to unreasonable speeds. This is spectacularly exemplified by Beacon Street in Boston where cars routinely exceed 50 miles an hour in a very dense area.

I believe that, in areas where motorists tend to drive too fast, the solution is traffic calming road redesign. If motorists are driving 50 in a 30 mile per hour zone, they will likely continue to drive 50 in a 25 mile per hour zone.

I also share reservations that if local authorities can set lower speed limits with no oversight, they will create speed traps and/or set unreasonably low speeds in response to campaigns by well-organized neighborhoods which will divert traffic into neighborhoods who are less well-organized. I have thought of the state department of transportation as the guardian of fair uniformity in the setting of speed limits.

All of that said, road redesign is slow and expensive, and safety is an urgent priority. I was ultimately persuaded by MassDOT’s decision to endorse the language and was pleased to push for its adoption.

Through the efforts of Representatives Hecht, Livingstone, Provost and others, the language was also included in the House draft and is therefore likely to become law. Local authorities will have to make the ultimate choices within the new more flexible rules.

Response from WB on July 19

Great set of comments here — thanks to all for weighing in. A clear divergence of opinion. One commenter pointed out that many are concerned that lower limits will lead to over-enforcement, while many are concerned that we do not have enough enforcement now. One commenter worried that local authorities would not use sound engineering in their decision-making. I’m not too concerned about that — most towns do have access to and do use professional traffic engineers in their major decisions. At the end of the day, I’m comfortable with the idea of devolving this decision-making to a more local level — local authorities will be able to consider the many good arguments and options raised here.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

164 replies on “Lower speed limits?”

  1. I support this measure. Even if many motorists will not follow the new rules, it will allow police new ticketing power to enforce the rules. I fully support Vision Zero, and this seems a great start to lower injuries ad deaths among pedestrians and bike riders.

  2. I am strongly in support of this measure. I have asked for lower speed limits or better stop sign markings in my neighborhood several times via 311. It is an extremely dangerous cut-through street where many schoolchildren are, as well as next to a T-stop where many pedestrians cross. I get no response from Boston or vague promises about doing a speed study. Meanwhile, I have seen many people almost get hit. Lower speed limits save lives. We can all slow down a bit. I support making it easier for municipalities to PROTECT THEIR CONSTITUENTS FROM DANGEROUS, SPEEDY DRIVERS.

  3. I think a more effective way to slow down traffic is with raised roads. I’ve seen how this slows traffic very well on Waverly St in Watertown(as people use to fly down that road past the Middle school which was even slower than the regular speed limit…did not help..until the raised roads!
    It may help but on side streets where many kids are is a big speeding problem..the speed limit is 25 and many go 35-40mph…so I’m doubtful this will help in those situations.

  4. As an example of how it could pan out we can take a look at Vision Zero and how it’s been implemented in NYC. In Staten Island twice as many tickets have been issued and the island is now blanketed by speed cameras. Yet, in 2015, the number of traffic accidents doubled vs. 2014. All road users need to be responsible including cyclists and pedestrians. I see regularly see cyclists blow through lights, plow down sidewalks despite bike lanes and pedestrians walking right into the street without looking because their eyes are fixated on their phones. If we enact laws that basically make cyclists and pedestrians judgment proof and it’s always the driver’s fault, more accidents are going to happen. While we can all agree on no road fatalities as a goal, not making all stakeholders responsible could actually increase the accident rate. I’m just concerned that this amendment won’t save lives, create more traffic and become another revenue source. Also along with Vision zero I read about the new bike lanes that will be installed on Beacon st. I think we should have bikes get license plates and pay registration fees just like cars do to offset the cost. It also makes bikes more accountable vs. just riding off after causing accidents / running over pedestrians on sidewalks despite bike lanes.

    1. Agree; just drive through Cambridge any day & watch out of control cyclists cutting off autos, intimadating pedestrians on sidewalks & in cross walks all while offering a universal gesture—-there is no traffic enforcement over cyclists or pedestrians at all in this Senate District!

  5. Will,

    I agree with your concerns about this proposed legislation. Posted speed limits are far less effective in controlling actual drivers’ behavior than traffic calming construction of roadways. If there are compelling safety concerns by towns, they should be willing to invest in genuinely-effective measures, not superficial speed-limit signage.

  6. I am opposed to more restrictive laws that will be ineffective. I’ll still be driving 35 on wide open good visibility stretches of Belmont and Concord avenues and 20 on streets like Horace when there are cars parked on both sides.

    The main result of a 25 limit would be that when a speeding ticket is issued, the fine will be for x+5 mph over the limit rather than x mph over the limit.

    Sorry to say Will, I think your conclusion is not logically consistent with the facts you present.

  7. There is a tradeoff between the costs and benefits of speed vs safety. 30 mph is slow enough. Enforce it.

  8. Thank you, this is an important step.

    Another reason alludes to your point about design. Right now, engineers must design streets to a 30 mph standard, and usually they make provision for drivers exceeding the speed limit as well. The problem is that designing for higher speeds means that you will get higher speeds, as you rightly point out.

    Having the legal authority to set lower speed limits means that engineers can now design streets with lower design speeds, thus giving the desired result of safer streets in a natural way.

    An additional step would be to recommend a policy, somehow, that engineers not choose road design parameters that encourage speeds above the limit. The reason that transport engineers even do that today is a misguided application of the notion of “margins of error”: making it safe for the drivers to go too fast will make the street unsafe for everyone else. Consideration of vulnerable road users has almost always been the missing piece of the puzzle.

  9. I would like to see it mandated in “traffic calming zones” (you know the speed bumps integrated with cross walks, bump-outs. I think speed limit should be conspicuously posted in these zones.

  10. I think this is a great idea, thank you Will! Some of the streets in my East Fenway neighborhood are full of pedestrians, speeds should really be no higher than 20 mph on quite a few of them. I also support raised crosswalks. They are smoother for pedestrians, increase visibility, and slow down cars. Curb cuts all too easily turn into disasters, with pooling water, not leveling with the street surface, etc.

  11. I believe any action that will slow traffic down is positive. There are many thickly settled areas where people are routinely driving 45- 50 mph in all conditions. Behavior also includes passing on the right and swinging pass cars stopped for pedestrians. If we give towns the right to adjust speed limits to 25 mph the police can stop people and fines can be raised. Cameras that can monitor speed and issues tickets automatically can be used a they do in Europe ( within cities and dangerous sections of Highways ). They are quite effective. Eventually with adequate fines people will begin to drive slower.

  12. The points above are good ones. Control of speed is a factor of enforcement NOT more stringent speed limits. Speeding fines in many communities are revenue enhancement measures NOT traffic safety measures. I think letting communities set limits below 30 is unnecessary & government micromanagement at its worst. You are totally correct that if someone drives 50 in a 30 zone then they will if it is set at 25 as well. Plus lower speeds increase congestion & adds additional pollutants to the air. I’m strongly opposed to the amendment! TY, Jerry Kelley

  13. This almost sounds like legislation drawn up to increase revenue. I agree with your assertion that people will continue to drive at the speeds at which they feel comfortable. This legislation seems like it will lower the speed threshold for the Police to issue tickets, but not achieve much else.

    1. Absolutely! It is ridiculous that while police reform is such a hot topic we’re broadening a widely known governmental scam that uses police as revenue collectors.

      We’re concerned about whether Driving While Black is a real offense–so let’s lower speed limits more? Our major crisis is stopping the worst representatives of the people and the police from killing each other, so let’s force more needless police encounters?

      This is crazy.

  14. I oppose this, and agree with you that a better solution will be road design. Traffic-calming road features are much harder for drivers to ignore than posted speeds, and we all know perfectly well that people who speed will continue to do so unless it physically becomes more difficult.

  15. No! I can’t agree with this at all. This will lead to less safety on the roads, because not only will drivers be driving at the same speeds they feel are reasonable, but they’ll also be splitting their attention between the road (traffic, pedestrians, etc.) and scanning for police! I think the 85% rule is an excellent indication of speeds that work for a particular road.
    Cars and drivers are getting squeezed more and more with so much emphasis on biking (even though a fraction of people are actually biking). Add in year-round construction (winter used to provide a respite, but no more) and my drives will go from bad to worse. And no, biking is not an option for me!

  16. Will, there is nothing arduous about 8th percentile studies.

    They are the basis for setting speed limits throughout the world.

    It’s a known fact that SLOWER IS NOT SAFER!

    SAFER IS ALL ABOUT SETTING THE RIGHT LIMITS.

    The reason for the 85th percentile study is to clearly establish that the speed limit works in the location. What you are doing is taking the decision out of qualified hands (highway engineers) and giving it to someone who’s got a vested interest in unreasonably low speed limits (cash strapped municipalities)

    This is how the classic southern “speed trap” towns stay in business.

    This must not become law!

    Setting lower speed limits where appropriate is fine, but KEEP THE 85h Percentile requirement!

    Moreover – let qualified engineers handle this, not hack politicians out for a quick buck!

  17. I support this measure. it is not the final solution, but it is a start and we need to start

  18. Like you, sir, I bike in the city, and would welcome the opportunity to advocate, locally, for lower speed limits in some places.
    Overall, however my thinking is that municipalities should make their own rules whenever possible. Just as a Senator form Western MA shouldn’t be making choices for Brighton, a Senator from Belmont shouldn’t be making choices for Lee, MA. So yes, vote for local control.

  19. As a cyclist, pedestrian and driver living in Cambridge, I find that cars are already slowing down.

    I am all for making adding this language so it is easier to respond to the realities on the street. Mass Ave in North Cambridge is another speedway. The roads are at capacity, or over much of the time, and drivers get both frantic and seem to have a sense of owning the road. Hard for them to even slow down in pedestrian walkways at times.

    We need to reclaim our streets and cities as places where people live, walk, cycle and drive. We still have a sense that driving is the king and the rest of uses are way down at the bottom of the pile.

    It is dangerous and stressful for all of us. Slower speeds in the city will help us all.

  20. I would be concerned about lowering speed limits because it will make traffic congestion worse. I do agree with the premise that less accidents and less harmful accidents happen at slower speeds. Therefore, I would be more in favor of keeping the current limits, but increasing the enforcement via electronic means. That would involve some capital costs, but would provide 24×7 monitoring and fining and not much additional police costs.

    Route 2 going out to Concord is a good example. The speed limit, I think, is 45 through Lexington, but everyone drives at least 60. Theoretically, the speed limit could be lowered to 40, but the cars will still drive 60+. Raising that limit to 50 with strict electronic enforcement would be a better alternative.

  21. Agree with all of these points. Raised intersections and crosswalks and other pedestrian visibility and traffic calming measures are needed. People get struck in crosswalks all the time by vehicles traveling at “safe” speeds. People trying to cross the street also need a safe and visible place to stand while waiting.

  22. Whatever the speed limit on Beacon St, unless it is enforced by police and drivers who exceed the speed limit are ticketed, it will not make any difference what the speed is.

  23. Vision Zero has proposed a 25 mph limit on Mass Ave from the Charles to Boston Medical Hosp. to reduce the number of car-bike-pedestrian crashes.

    They also want the detected-speed posted, traffic light timing changed so as not to encourage speeding and enforcement on drivers, bikers and pedestrians.

    I support their efforts. There are close calls daily or even hourly.

  24. I cannot support this. Living in Back Bay I know the reason there are issues on Beacon St is because the current speed limits ARE NOT being enforced! Passing a law will NOT help. The police need to crack down on BU kids screaming down at 60mph through Back Bay and all the stupid loud Harley riders racing through a residential neighborhood. They don’t even live there! Start with enforcement, not more stupid govt. laws!

  25. I think this is a bad idea. It will not actually lead to people driving slower, but will just make more people into lawbreakers more of the time. People already don’t comply with speed limits, so until/unless we can enforce 30 mph limits, what’s the value of lowering them to 25 mph. The current process of requiring traffic studies to demonstrate the value of lowering speeds is better than having a town meeting or council simply decide they think a lower speed is “safer”. Where’s the data for that?

    Traffic calming measures are another story altogether. Let’s make roadways safer and design them for better sharing among cars, bikes and pedestrians. But’s not make even more drivers illegal more of the time by simply changing the speed limit signs.

  26. What is really needed are more distinctions than just “thickly settled areas” in determining local speed limits. For example, a one-way street that is parked on both sides with a relatively narrow travel lane (like many Cambridge streets) should be declared a “neighborhood street” (or something like that), and it should have a speed limit of no more than 20-25 mph. There are other streets that by their very geometry should also be put in this category without having to carry out a detailed traffic study to justify the reduced speed. This should be established statewide. The 30 mph standard is still perfectly fine for many streets. All of Cambridge is “thickly settled”, but not all roads in Cambridge can safely accommodate the same speeds.

  27. THE REAL PROBLEM IS THAT 25MPH. IS TOO FAST IN SOME AREAS (WITH BIKE LANES, FOR INSTANCE) OR AT CERTAIN TIMES OF THE DAY TO BE CONSIDERED “REASONABLE”.

    I AM IN FAVOR OF ALLOWING ANY MUNICIPALITY TO SET WHATEVER THEY CONSIDER PROPER FOR ALL HOURS OF THE DAY AND UNDER ALL CONDITIONS THAT MIGHT PREVAIL IN THAT PARTICULAR ARE
    THER HAVE BEEN TOO MANY ACCIDENTS AMONG CYCLISTS!!

  28. As a car-free pedestrian, I welcome lower speed limits. During the oil crisis of 1979 drivers learned to adapt to a 55-mph speed limit on highways.

  29. It seems to me that if there are roads where drivers speed at 50 in a 25 zone, then it is not the speed limit that is the issue but the design of the road.

    Does the bill make it easier for municipalities to install traffic calming measures?

    Shouldn’t the real outcome of a speed analysis where the 85% is above the current speed limit be a trigger to add appropriate features to the road to reduce those speeds?

  30. Sounds good, Will. I love the idea of slowing things down. I agree with comments on enforcement but allowing communities to do their own thing with less red tape has appeal.

  31. As both a pedestrian and a driver, I believe that lower speed limits are not necessary. In fact, the added congestion seems to contribute to driver frustration and pedestrian confusion. Letting traffic flow naturally allows drivers to maintain reasonable progress and signals to pedestrians to cross at lights and crosswalks. As congestion grows drivers become preoccupied with “beating” other drivers and pedestrians often cross roads in the middle of traffic. I think enforcing limits as they are is more than reasonable. And enforcing pedestrian laws as well! If you drive around Boston U, you know what I mean. Lowering the limits will become yet another revenue stream for cities and towns. I disagree with this measure altogether.

  32. Will-
    I never drive slower than 30 mph
    It would cause accidents
    bad idea – try speed bumps
    -Gene

  33. Great more revenue enhancement ! I can see it now , have dinner in Belmont center with 2 or 3 glasses of wine . Drive through Cushing square get pulled over for doing 30 and low and behold , that speeding violation becomes an oui . (I smell alcohol ) ?. No licence for 6 months and 10 g in legal fees for first time offense . Look if the lower than 30 is pronounced with lit numbers , no problem .
    Jim

    1. Well, then you can stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere via car and walk, bicycle or take public transportation! Think of the health benefits.

  34. This is absolutely a GREAT proposal!!! I live in the Fenway and often see traffic going a far greater speeds than I am sure Boston would like to limit to less MPH. Most buildings in this area are apartments or Condos and include students, either living or entering Fenway for schools, people of greater age and thus slow in walking. And we have many pedestrians going to local stores,such as CVS,Target, Star, Marshall’s,and restaurants etc. So allowing Boston to reign in speedy drivers would be a lifesaver!

  35. I agree with the bill that the that the municipalities should have greater latitude in setting their speed limits, without too much hassle, since they know their neighborhoods best.

  36. The effect is that all municipalities will set a 25 mph speed limit on roads traveled by out-of-town commuters … Who, in turn, will continue to drive 35 and 45 mph, etc.

    I think a much better approach is to keep speed limits as they are, but allow the municipalities to install video cameras to enforce speed limits. The result would be that speed limits remain, say, 35 mph, but enforcement can ensure the limits are strictly enforced.

    To have very low speed limits posted with people being used to drive fast is an invitation to abuse and to cherry-picking by the local police.

  37. I think that in residential neighborhoods 25 is a more reasonable speed limit, if a town want it and posts the new limits. Actually, I thought that years ago it was 20 and that it changes to 30, which is too high. No wonder one never sees kids playing in the streets anymore.

    In contrast, I think the speed limit on Mill Street should be raised, at least to 35. Cars travel that fast and faster. And should be able to according to the law.

  38. Right on – thank you Sen Brownsberger for pushing this change through. As an urban bicyclist for 45 years i am constantly horrified at how fast too many people drive.

  39. I’m certainly in favor of this ruling and as I understand it; there will be choices available to change speed limits without further approval. I live in Brighton and I asked my councilman to address this issue of speed on Kenrick St. After looking into the traffic flow they (Traffic Dept.) agreed to post “thickly settled area” signs in several locations. As of today there has been no change. Cars come zooming down from Newton in the AM and zooming back in the PM. With so many cars parked here driving on the street is kind of scary. One has to squeeze by to get through safely.Last year my parked car was rear ended. 30 mph is ok when driving on a wider road or street but it’s just too fast on this one.
    Thanks

  40. Thank you, Will! I live in the Back Bay and strongly support setting lower speed limits. I also strongly support the redesign efforts of Vision Zero.

  41. All this goes back to zoning and the high density we are seeing with the lack of coordination between zoning and school budgets being busted etc etc. Too many single houses being torn down and multi families going up in their place, or multiple homes on the same plot. We really should have larger set backs.

  42. Is there any broad idea on the costs of enacting this (signage, etc)? It seems very unclear that there would be a reasonable return in safety. Legislating often doesn’t the desired effect, and indeed creates negative unintended consequences. I can tell from the comments there are many non-drivers supporting lowered limits that perhaps have never tried to drive from one end of town to the other at speeds slower than 30 MPH. This seems like a well intentioned boondoggle, that will only serve to syphon more money from motorists, and is likely to lead to more unnecessarily escalated police / motorist encounters.

  43. Please vote yes. I was a co-sponsor of a Cambridge City Council policy order that supports this bill. Cambridge is also adding traffic calming elements to our streets. With apps like Waze sending more cars on residential streets to avoid congestion it’s important for us to be able to enforce appropriate speeds.

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