Salt Lake City Council Chairman Dan Dugan reflected on the debates made a few decades ago, when federal speed limits were set at 55 miles per hour on federal highways, as he stood next to a 25 mph speed limit sign he was ready to replace.
Some of the arguments in the 1970s weren’t terribly different from those made when the Salt Lake City Council recently opted to reduce the default speed limit on residential streets by 5 mph earlier this year.
“But the world didn't end when we slowed down to 55 and the world’s not going to end when we slow down from 25 to 20 on local streets," said Dugan, chairman of the Salt Lake City Council. "It's going to cost you a few seconds, but it can save us a few lives."
Moments later, Dugan and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall took turns removing the 25 mph sign and replacing it with a new 20 mph sign outside of Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City’s Glendale neighborhood Wednesday morning.
It's the first of 575 similar signs that are set to be replaced across about 420 miles of the city's residential streets in the coming weeks. Jon Larsen, the city's transportation director, said he expects all of the signs to be installed by the end of August, ahead of the upcoming school year.
The new signs are being installed after the Salt Lake City Council approved a measure to reduce speed limits on residential streets — streets that compose roughly 70% of all roads in the city — in May. The council decided on the speed reduction as road safety has been a major issue across the state in the past two years.
Last year was the deadliest year on Utah roads since 2002, and there have already been 18 traffic-related deaths in Salt Lake City this year — at least half of which have involved pedestrians. At the same time, as the council contemplated a speed limit change in the spring, a series of fatal crashes in the city and along the Wasatch Front prompted Mendenhall to announce a new road safety task force.
What tilted the decision, though, were studies on speed reductions. A city transportation department report confirmed the statistics that the nonprofit organization Sweet Streets had provided, as it pushed for safety changes last year. A 2011 AAA study, for example, found that the risk of an average person dying in an auto-pedestrian crash dropped from 12% to 7% when a vehicle’s speed fell from 25 mph to 20 mph. The rate jumps to 25% when a vehicle is traveling 32 mph.
This is why school zones already have 20 mph speed limits.
"One death is far too many," the mayor said Wednesday. "What (reducing the speed limit) says to Salt Lakers is we care about your safety. We want our kids to be able to walk to school safely. We want you to feel safe walking the dog, going out as a family in the evening, walking to work, walking to a transit station or walking to a grocery store nearby. You are our priority."
While the city replaces the hundreds of residential speed limit signs in the coming weeks, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said a motor squad will hit the streets to educate drivers about the speed limit change. This may result in warnings for people who are caught driving the old speed limit. The police department will also add more signs that let drivers know how fast they are traveling.
Brown said there are many drivers who either aren't aware they are speeding or what the speed limit is on the road, based on interactions he's had pulling drivers over. Ultimately, he believes education will help reach the city's safety goal faster than simply issuing speeding tickets.
"We're never going to cite our way out of this problem, but as we educate and come together as a community, we'll all have an impact on the safety of our streets," the police chief said. "Sometimes that goes a long way. It could make just (the same) impact as a citation."
Speeding on residential streets is typically one of the largest complaints the city's transportation department receives, according to Larsen. He attributes that to an old transportation adage that people enjoy diving faster when they can but don't like it when people speed on the road where they live.
He knows that just reducing speed limits won't solve all of the city's road safety issues. It's why his department is looking at other ways to improve traffic safety, especially on collector and arterial roads, which make up most of the remaining percentage of Salt Lake roads. Those types of streets, like State Street, are unaffected by the speed limit change but account for a large portion of fatal crashes in the city.
This is why the city has looked into reconfiguring road designs, adding traffic calming measures, and building multiuse pathways near roads to make streets safer. Larsen said he's thrilled that his department has started receiving the funds and resources needed to "make a dent."
He also hopes the new 20 mph speed limit on residential streets will make a difference.
"We're going to do everything that we can, but we also ask that people take this moment of lower speed limits to stop and reflect about how they drive and if it really matters to get there 10 seconds faster," Larsen said. "Maybe take a deep breath, slow down, have some (empathy). ... It's not just safety, I think it's a sign of respect and kindness we can show our neighbors by driving slower."