Advancing Vision Zero in Montgomery County

There were forty traffic deaths in Montgomery County in 2014, the last year for which we have complete data. That includes drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists and hundreds more are injured. While we have come to accept these tragedies as a fact of life, many crashes are preventable. In recent years, we have also seen a spike in pedestrian and bicycle deaths. As more people walk, bike, and use public transit to get around in our County, warning pedestrians and bicyclists to use crosswalks and wear reflective clothing is simply not enough. Education is a key component of any safety initiative, but we need to reengineer our built environment so that mistakes are not deadly – drivers and pedestrians are people, and people will always make mistakes.

To reorient County government around this paradigm, I joined with Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich to introduce a Council resolution to establish a Vision Zero program in Montgomery County, which passed unanimously in February. Vision Zero is a commitment to use data and all available tools to reduce traffic deaths to zero by a specific date. This commitment helps is a very useful tool to focus our conversation and resources, and similar programs have drastically reduced crashes and fatalities in numerous jurisdictions abroad. Over the last few years, Vision Zero has been widely adopted by American cities. When we passed the resolution, we hoped that an Executive Branch Task Force would produce a report and recommendations by October 1, 2016. The County Executive has embraced the initiative and the Task Force’s is proceeding.

While the Task Force completes its work, including setting a date by which our County aims to reach zero deaths, I continue to look for ways to make our streets safer. One of the clearest ways to improve safety is to lower travel speeds. One 2011 study showed that while the risk of serious injury is only 10% when a pedestrian is hit by a car going 16mph, it rises to 25% at 23mph and 50% at 31mph. While investigating a constituent request to improve safety on a neighborhood street, I found that state law does not allow the County to set speed limits on County roads lower than 25mph and that the “default” speed limit on any residential road that does not have a posted speed limit is 30mph. There are limited exceptions that allow lower speeds, for example in school zones. For many residential streets, this is already far too fast. That floor also limits the ability of Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation to design new roads more safely or add traffic calming to existing roads that would reduce speeds lower than 25mph, since DOT’s criteria for whether traffic calming features are warranted (for example speed bumps) are based on the speed limit of the road.

I worked with District 20 Delegate David Moon to develop state legislation to address these issues, and Del. Moon has introduced three bills that would give Montgomery County more flexibility to lower speeds on our neighborhood streets. All of these bills would be authorizing only; the County would still have to act in order for any changes to go into effect. Our hope is that, if the State grants us this flexibility, the Vision Zero task force can consider and recommend appropriate changes to County policy that might result in lower speed limits, in addition to giving DOT the ability to make changes in individual situations.

MC 22-17: Default Unposted Speed Limit in Montgomery County

Introduced by Delegates Moon and Korman

This enabling legislation authorizes Montgomery County to lower the “default” speed limit on residential and business district roads that do not have a posted speed limit. The current default speed limit on these roads is 30mph. This bill would authorize the County to lower that limit as low as 20mph. Passage of this law would not implement a speed limit change; the county would still have to act.

MC 23-17: Lowest Posted Speed Limit Allowable in Montgomery County

Introduced by Delegates Moon and Korman

This enabling legislation authorizes Montgomery County to lower the speed limits on certain County roads to 15mph. The current floor is 25mph, with certain exceptions. Passage of this law would not implement a speed limit change, as the county would still have to take action and in most instances perform a traffic study before making the change. This change may be desirable in urban pedestrian zones or other areas with pedestrian safety issues, especially when engineering changes for pedestrian safety would accompany the lower speed limit.

MC 24-17: Speed Limit on Walk to School Routes

Introduced by Delegates Moon and Luedtke

This bill eliminates the requirement that Montgomery County conduct a traffic study before lowering speed limits on county roads within a walking radius of Montgomery County Public Schools and allows speed limits as low as 15mph. This change would allow MoCo’s “Safe Routes to School” program to more quickly implement engineering changes to improve safe pedestrian and bike access to public schools.

Make your voice heard

The Montgomery County Delegation will be holding Public Hearings for these (and all other) local bills on the evenings of Monday, December 5th and Wednesday, December 7th at the Council Office Building in Rockville. Sign up to testify here.