The Denver Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee advanced Wednesday a measure by City Councilman Paul Kashmann to reduce the speed limit on unstriped neighborhood roads to 20 mph from 25.
Kashmann acknowledged this is only the first of several changes the city intends to make to reduce traffic fatalities on its roads. So far this year, 80 people have died in traffic accidents in Denver, a record.
In fact, more than 400 people have died on Denver’s roads since 2016, when Mayor Michael Hancock announced an initiative to get to zero traffic deaths in Denver.
Kashmann said his bill, which was unanimously sent to the full City Council by the committee, will “try to actually realize the goals of the Vision Zero program. Unfortunately, we’ve been moving in the wrong direction.”
Studies show speed kills
Kashmann said a 2011 study by the Automobile Association of America showed accident risk increases by 100 percent when a car is driven at 32 mph compared to 23. Another study by Tobias Niebuhr showed older people are much more likely to suffer serious injuries or death in a traffic accident.
Portland recently lowered its speed limit to 20 mph from 25 in neighborhoods. City Councilman Kevin Flynn said the city only realized a one-half of one percent reduction in the number of people driving over 25. Statistics did not show how many people still were driving over 20.
“There’s no illusions that dropping from 25 to 20 is a silver bullet,” Kashmann said. “It’s a change in culture in our thinking that we just need to slow down.”
Education versus aggressive enforcement
Representatives of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, or DOTI, attended the committee meeting. They said the department intends to roll out “a robust education program.”
The council was divided on the issue of enforcement. Although Deputy Police Chief Ron Thomas said the department does not have the resources for citywide speed enforcement, some council members said it does work. They wondered how many people will slow down if new signs are posted without enforcement.
Thomas said the department supports the lower speed limit. He said police have message boards that display a motorist’s speed as they drive past. That slows drivers down. The boards have flashing red and blue lights that give the illusion a real squad car is ahead.
Flynn said he read a story on the internet of a woman who became frustrated with speeding on her street. She went outside with a hair dryer and people thought she had a radar gun. This caused them to slow down, Flynn chuckled.
Speakers praise lowering speed limit
Residents who attended the meeting praised the idea of lowering the speed limit. A mother named Alejandra said she volunteers as a crossing guard at her 10-year-old son’s school. “I get to see drivers’ behaviors on a daily basis.”
She said a recent traffic study showed most people were driving 22.04 mph on Zuni, where the school is located, “but our school community still feels it’s unsafe.”
Jill Locantore, who heads up Denver’s Street Partnership, said speed is one of the most crucial factors in whether accidents happen. She said Seattle recently lowered its speed limits and has seen traffic deaths drop even without an education campaign.
Resident James Warren lives in the West Colfax neighborhood. He does not own a vehicle and rides his bike, which he said can be dangerous in his neighborhood. “Changing to 20 mph is not going to solve our traffic related fatalities in a single blow, but it’s a simple and obvious step,” he said.
Representatives from DOTI said next steps in reducing traffic fatalities on Denver roads will include addressing the speed limits on collector and arterial roads. That is where most traffic deaths occur. A pilot program next year will add speed limit signs. Signs will be placed more strategically so motorists see them.
DOTI also is looking into retrofitting roads that were built too wide. The council agreed that roads must be constructed in ways that slow people down. Simply reducing the speed limit is not enough.