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New Portland Speed Limit Signs Lower Speed to 20 MPH

Portland’s cyclists, pedestrians and parents of children who walk to school are all breathing a sigh of relief. At long last, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is preparing to roll out between 250 and 300 new speed limit signs right across the city’s neighborhood greenways.

These neighborhood greenways are part of the city’s network of bike-friendly streets, but it’s not just the new signs that are making walkers and bikers smile. It’s the speed limit posted on those signs. For the first time ever, PBOT have been given the authority to lower speed limits on residential streets to just 20 miles per hour without having to get permission from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

New legislation passed in 2011 was the result of some very intensive work by the City and a number of advocacy groups, who believed the PBOT should be able to make its own decisions regarding speed limits without the cumbersome processes previously required.

Specific criteria still exist

Not every residential street automatically qualifies for the new speed limit or one of the new signs. Specific criteria will have to be established first, based on things like:

  • The number of motor vehicles using a specific street
  • The average recorded speed of those vehicles
  • The types of engineering improvements that are installed

The 2011 bill also said each roadway proposed for the new Portland speed limit signs of 20 mph limit will have to be specified in ordinance and passed by the Portland City Council before the new limit can take effect.

While some may fear those specifications and the required vote will put the new speed limit on the back burner for some time yet, they needn’t fear. PBOT spokesman Dan Anderson says the city council will vote on that ordinance—including a map of the streets proposed to get the new signs—as early as the first half of August.

Once the ordinance is passed (and no one can foresee any difficulties on that score), crews could begin putting up the new 20 mph signs without any further delays. Anderson says they could be up as early as the end of August or the beginning of September.

20 or 25…what’s the big deal?

According to the PBOT, 20 miles per hour is the absolute optimum speed for making residential streets safer and more attractive to use for pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. The difference between 20 mph and 25 mph may not seem like much, but it can mean a world of difference when a car collides with a bike or someone who is walking. The statistics show that:

  • At 20 mph, there is almost no chance of a fatal injury occurring.
  • If a pedestrian or cyclist is hit by a car doing 20 mph, there is only a miniscule chance that a serious injury will occur.
  • When the vehicle speed is raised by just 5 miles per hour, to 25 mph, the chance of a fatal injury increases from near zero to 5 percent.
  • At 25 mph, the chances of the pedestrian or bicyclist being injured rises from near zero to a shocking 65 percent—just with that almost imperceptible increase in speed.

The greater the speed, the greater the stopping distance

Even with advances in technology, automotive safety systems, ABS brakes and other anti-skid devices, one thing that doesn’t change is the fact that the faster you’re driving, the further you will travel when you decide to stop.

Many drivers will tell you that their reaction time prior to an emergency stop would be half a second or less, according to surveys on driving habits. It’s hard to test this, because what’s important is not how fast someone can react when they’re expecting an emergency situation, it’s how fast they actually will react when an unexpected emergency occurs directly in front of them.

In real terms, a driver’s average reaction time can be as much as 2.5 seconds between the onset of the emergency (like a pedestrian stepping out into the street, or a cyclist appearing from a driveway or side street) and the time they hit the brakes. The effects of what may seem like minor differentials in speed can have incredible—and devastating—impacts on braking distances.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re approaching an intersection on a dry road, and a pedestrian suddenly steps out in front of you. They’re exactly 110 feet away. The following is what will happen at different speeds, based on a reaction time of 2.5 seconds:

  • At 20 mph, you will have traveled 75 feet before you brake, and another 35 feet after braking, which means that you will stop just before you get to the pedestrian, so there’s a zero percent chance of either fatality or injury.
  • At 25 mph, you will have traveled about 90 feet before you brake, and you’d still be moving at 20 mph when you hit the pedestrian, so there’s a 5 percent chance of a fatality and a 65 percent chance of injury.
  • At 30 mph, you will have traveled the full 110 feet in the 2.5 second reaction time. You will travel another 90 feet before being able to come to a complete stop. This gives a 45 percent chance of a fatality and a 50 percent chance of injury, and this is just 10 mph faster than the 20 mph optimum speed.
  • At 35 mph, you won’t even have begun to slow down when you hit the pedestrian, and you’ll travel another 140 feet before coming to a complete stop. There’s now a 65 percent chance the pedestrian will be killed, and a 33 percent chance of a serious injury.

Two more things to remember about speed and stopping distances

Apart from the statistics shown above, which some drivers may debate, what is certain is that when someone doubles their driving speed, they don’t double their stopping distance; it increases fourfold. This is indisputable, no matter how fast your reaction times are.

What’s even more worrying is what happens on icy roads or those which have diesel spillages on them. In these cases, the braking distance when compared with dry roads, given the exact same cars doing the exact same speeds with the exact same reaction times don’t just double or even triple. In those conditions, the final braking distance can be up to 10 times more than on dry roads.

Given the obvious safety benefits to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists themselves, the cost of Portland’s new speed limit signs, including the poles required, at about $150 each, or a total spend of from $30,000 to $45,000, is starting to look like a bargain.

Portland is without doubt one of the most bike and pedestrian friendly cities in the country. Any move that is made to make our streets safer for people on bikes, people walking their dogs, going to school or out for a bit of exercise is to be welcomed.

As long as there are drivers out there who insist on going too fast, or who become distracted by their cell phone, or who drive after drinking, accidents will continue to happen in Portland, and people will be injured. If this has happened to you, give yourself the best chance you can of getting the compensation you need from the at-fault individual. Contact a Portland personal injury attorney with experience in all areas relating to bicycle, motorcycle, pedestrian or auto accidents.

The consultation is free, and they would be happy to answer your questions and give free advice. Then, if you decide to pursue your claim, they will guide you through the process, every step of the way.