The Politics of Speed



The current discussion on non-arterial speed in the Washington State legislature (SHB1217) would allow cities and counties the ability to set a 20mph limit on residential streets.

To put this in context, it would be good to look at the speed issue in the history of traffic laws in our country (for a comprehensive review, see Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton, 2008 MIT Press). Automobile/pedestrian accidents are not new; it is interesting to find that many corporations and the American Automobile Association were behind the shift to auto-prioritized traffic regulations.

It wasn’t always this way, in the early 1920s’ the Chicago Motor Club had a campaign to highlight accidents with posted signs “What’s Your Hurry?”. By 1922, Motor Magazine shifted this discussion by stating regulating speeds to “20-25 miles per hour under all circumstances" (emphasis mine) would “rob the automobile of much of its utility” at that time. Peter Norton writes even the traffic engineers of the mid-1920s “condemned the spatial inefficiency of automobiles and questioned the sense of spending large sums of money to give them room.” By 1926 Norton indicates that AAA jumped on this trend and indicated that motorists who struck children anywhere in the street outside the pedestrian crossing could not be classified among the “careless”. Today (2012) we have statistics from our own Harborview Medical Center that are clear, speed kills.

All of us (I hope) want safe streets for all, even if just for the simple conditions that slower speed could bring when of backing out of our driveway or pulling away from the curb. We would all benefit from the improved legislation- you could say this is our RIGHT. The ‘State’ does not have a city or county user perspective and state laws should not prevent us from creating safe neighborhoods for all.

Please contact your legislator and let’s send this one through.