Photo by ph-stop on Flickr.

Tomorrow, the DC Council will take its second vote on its bill to lower speed fines. It’s likely to pass, given that it passed unanimously on first reading, but it contains some extremely dangerous provisions, including one that would force the District to set speed limits based on the “engineering perspective” over neighborhood livability.

ANC 3E goes further and argues, in a unanimous resolution, that the bill would harm safety rather than enhance it. I have a hard time disagreeing, given that Chairman Phil Mendelson removed many of the important provisions in the original bill that came from the task force I served on, and added some harmful new ones.

I previously listed some troubling provisions that made it into the transportation committee markup, mostly at Mendelson’s behest, but the most damaging is this section, which the committee didn’t pass but which Mendelson added anyway:

(a) By November 1, 2013, the Mayor shall complete a District-wide assessment that evaluates the speed limits on the District’s arterials and other streets. The report of the assessment shall include the criteria used for assessing the speed limits. Upon its completion, the assessment shall be posted to the District Department of Transportation’s website. The assessment shall:

  • (1) Utilize factors common among transportation officials for the determination of speed limit;
  • (2) Evaluate whether comparable arterials should have comparable speed limits, and similarly do so for other streets;
  • (3) Include, based solely on an engineering perspective, speed limits for the District’s arterials and other streets.

(b) By January 1, 2014, the Mayor shall revise, through rulemaking, existing speed limits throughout the District. The speed limits shall include comparable speeds for comparable arterials, and other comparable streets. Notwithstanding this requirement, the Mayor shall not cause an anti-deficiency as determined by a fiscal impact statement obtained by the Mayor from the Chief Financial Officer.

“Engineering perspective” shouldn’t be only factor in speed limits

Mendelson apparently is trying to ensure that speed limits get set without regard for revenue or politics, and fairly between different arterials in various parts of the city.

Those are good instincts, but requiring an “engineering perspective” for speed limits is the wrong approach. The traffic engineering profession has a deeply ingrained practice of setting speed limits solely for car traffic, and with the motivation of making roads move traffic as fast as possible for the safety of drivers.

They traditionally use a simple “80% rule”: Set the limit at the rate that 80% of drivers move on a particular road. The idea is that some people are speeding, but if most people travel at a particular rate, that rate is probably safe. And on a limited-access highway, that’s not a terrible idea, because there is only one kind of road user (maybe two, if motorcycles are separate).

But our neighborhood streets, including arterials, have to balance the needs of many modes. 80% of drivers gives no thought whatsoever to the speed that will allow people to cross the street at unsignalized intersections (where it’s legal) without the danger that a driver won’t come around a curve so fast that they can’t see the pedestrian or stop in time. It doesn’t consider the traffic flow that would allow bicyclists and drivers to coexist safely and efficiently.

The “engineering perspective” doesn’t have to ignore these factors; engineers could easily devise another algorithm that is better. But they generally haven’t, and the guy in charge of speed limits for DDOT, James Cheeks, personally wrote a whitepaper when he worked for the Institute of Transportation Engineers advocating for the 80% rule.

That document says the 80% rule is “a case of majority rule.” Actually, we often don’t set laws just based on majority rule. We protect vulnerable minority groups and have legal processes to ensure majorities don’t trample their needs. On the roads, motorists are the majority but pedestrians and cyclists are a vulnerable minority we need to protect.

At the task force meetings, Cheeks reiterated that the 80% rule was his preferred way to set speed limits, but when pushed, also added that DDOT always talks to residents and also thinks about pedestrian and bicycle safety. My fear is that the “engineering perspective” in Mendelson’s provision will specifically push DDOT to follow the dangerous method in this whitepaper, which specifically comes from engineers, and not to incorporate other needs or listen to communities.

ANC 3E wants escalating fines

The Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Tenleytown, AU Park and Friendship Heights, ANC 3E, asked the Council to turn down the bill entirely, saying, “We believe the stated basis for enacting the Bill does not support the Bill’s passage. Without material changes, we believe the Bill would fail adequately deter repeat offenders and lead to unnecessary deaths and injuries.”

The ANC primarily is concerned that repeat offenders will get off easy for ignoring the laws time and again. The task force originally supported having some system that would give first offenders lower penalties, and chronic repeat offenders higher ones. The original bill also prescribed much higher fines for higher levels of speeding on the belief that traveling 20-30 mph over the limit is act much more intentionally flouting the law than speeding 11 mph over.

The ANC’s resolution states:

ANC 3E believes the current fine regime, which per the legislative history puts DC near the middle of state fine regimes, is not unduly harsh. Evidence is strong that speed cameras save lives in DC. By contrast, the evidence is weak that higher fines do not promote more safety, as economic theory predicts, or that a majority of DC residents want to see fines lowered.

Whether or not the Council chooses to reduce some fines, however, we strenuously urge the Council to establish a system of fines for moving violations that escalates after a set number of offenses of a given severity. The escalation scheme should parallel the point system for violations in a police officer’s presence. Thus, an owner whose vehicle is ticketed three times in a two year period for driving 16 mph over the limit should receive a fine on the third offense whose magnitude would be akin to the magnitude of license suspension for a 6+ months. Although we do not formally recommend such a sum, we believe that it should be at least $500.

If the Council does not amend the Bill to create such an escalating scheme, we respectfully urge the Mayor to veto it, and respectfully urge the Council to reconsider creating such a scheme.

The resolution also argues that absent more evidence that lower fines don’t lead to more speeding, it doesn’t make sense to lower the fines. It says that most residents do support the fines, and asks the Council not to listen to organized lobbying from a few special interest groups.

Update: Tina pointed out that this gem of a video is very relevant here. Everyone who thinks that the same old “engineering perspective” is the right way to make traffic decisions needs to see this.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.