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20 mph speed limit debate races on

By Jia-Rui Chong, Daily Planet staff
Saturday March 23, 2002

When Councilmember Kriss Worthington made a proposal on the March 19 City Council agenda to lower residential speed limits to 20 mph, he did not expect the amount of media attention and ridicule that resulted. 

Options such as speed bumps have been crossed off the list of ways to increase traffic safety because disabled people have complained that riding over them hurts their spines, said Worthington. 

Plus, he added, the costs for putting a police officer on every corner to enforce traffic laws is prohibitive. Worthington said he was simply suggesting that the city try a new experiment. 

“What if we reduced the speed limit 5 mph? On average, people tend to go 5 mph above the speed limit. It’s partly psychological. People might feel funny about going that much higher,” he said. 

“It is one tool in a wide range of tools that the city is trying to use to address congestion and speeding,” said Worthington.  

He quoted an American Automobile Association study that reported cars going less than 20 mph cause and sustain less damage when they get into accidents. 

While he acknowledged that cars going slower may not ease congestion, some of the other suggestions for traffic safety – including speed bumps, diverters and narrowing the road at pedestrian crossings to allow only a single car across at a time – do not necessarily ease congestion either. 

Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who has often spoken up about traffic issues, said that even though many were making light of the idea, she did not completely dismiss it.  

“I think it would be better if we did it around schools – even at 15 miles per hour – because it would be somewhere where more people would be paying attention,” said Hawley. 

But she did point to some of the logistical problems of lowering the speed limit to 20 mph, 5 miles below the state-mandated limit. “You’d have to put a sign up on every block if you vary the speed limit from the state. It’s an extra expense for the city, plus the expense for enforcement.” 

Atle Erlingsson, the Northern California spokesperson for the American Automobile Association, said that he would encourage the city to commission a study since he did not know of any that would be applicable to the City of Berkeley. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had statistics showing that high speeds were linked to more deaths. 

But there was no data on lowering speeds to under 25 mph, said NHTSA spokesperson Elly Martin. 

Since there have been no new studies commissioned by the federal government since Congress gave up the right to determine speed limits, Martin said it was up to local and state governments to look into their own traffic situations.