Lowering the limit: How allowing 15 mph zones could save lives in Virginia

Lowering the limit: How allowing 15 mph zones could save lives in Virginia
A speed limit sign in Richmond. (Source: Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Just as speed limits set a maximum velocity for drivers, so too the commonwealth establishes a minimum speed limit for localities. Currently, any city or county looking to slow traffic in a busy shopping district or on a quiet residential street can go no lower than 25 mph.

A bill passed during this year’s General Assembly session, however, would change that, permitting posted speed limits to drop as low as 15 mph. Ten miles per hour difference may not seem huge, but for pedestrian safety advocates and the families of victims of traffic collisions, the change could mean the difference between life and death.

Honoring Aajah

A combination of blinding sunlight and excessive speed caused the crash which took Aajah Rosemond’s life while she was walking to the store last fall. Hoping to prevent similar future tragedies, the Richmond teenager’s family approached Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, with a request to help lower speed limits in their Southside neighborhood. The resulting HB 1903 “authorizes local governing bodies to reduce the speed limit to less than 25 miles per hour, but not less than 15 miles per hour, in a business district or residence district.”

“Aajah’s story is unfortunately not uncommon,” Carr said, referencing Virginia’s rapidly increasing pedestrian death rate over the last decade. “In 2019, we hit a new record number of pedestrian deaths and, despite the reduction in driving during the pandemic, speeding fatalities increased. We had 123 pedestrian fatalities in 2020. One in six people killed on Virginia’s roads is on foot now.”

For Brantley Tyndall, the director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA — a Richmond-based pedestrian and cyclist advocacy program, the connection between higher speeds and increasing danger to pedestrians is equally clear. “Because of the pandemic there was much less congestion so people drove faster,” he said. “We saw a 12.5 percent jump in speeding-related fatalities last year but fewer crashes which means crashes have gotten more deadly, especially for people on foot.”

The increased danger posed by drivers didn’t go unnoticed among Carr’s constituents. “There was just a kind of sense of pedestrians being more at risk, so this seemed like the right time to bring lowering speed limits forward,” she said.

Local limits

Virginia localities’ lack of authority to set their own minimum speed is not unique to the commonwealth, according to Angie Schmitt, a planning consultant and author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America. “Most cities in the United States don’t have direct control over their speed limits. That’s the norm.”

Across the United States speed limits often cannot go any lower than 25 mph with a few notable exceptions. Localities in New York fought for and won the right to set their own minimum speed limits. The cities of Portland, Oregon and Boston reduced their standard citywide speed limit to 20 mph. In accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, countries ranging from India to Mexico have devolved such powers to localities.

“Folks often think that just changing the signs won’t make any difference, but that’s not true,” Schmitt said. “Research shows lower speed limits reduce average speeds. Lowering the speed people are struck by even just 5 mph can make a huge difference, especially if the victim is older. Given the U.S. population is getting older, this is an increasingly important change states and localities can make to improve safety.”

Since speed is the number one predictor of the severity of a car crash, advocates believe the arguments in favor of 15 mph should be clear. “People walk the most to school, a local business, or in their neighborhoods,” Tyndall said. “If we can lower speeds, we can lower impact probabilities and keep people safer in those areas where people are most vulnerable. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all tool, but it’s necessary tool localities need to improve safety.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.