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Thursday, December 8, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy

Council members consider ways to lower neighborhood speed limits

Testimony included talk of a birthday.

“Ben turned 10 on Monday at a rehabilitation facility in Dallas,” Kathy Sokolic told members of the City Council Mobility Committee on Wednesday. As we’ve chronicled before, a car hit Sokolic’s nephew, Ben, outside his home in the Mueller neighborhood in September. He survived, but his injuries have left him unable to speak or walk.

“Some of his family members threw a birthday party for him,” she continued. “A party where someone else opened his presents. Someone else blew out his candles. And everyone else ate his birthday brownies, all while he watched.”

Committee members approved four measures Wednesday – including the support of statewide change and better street design – aimed at lowering speed limits on Austin’s more residential streets. The effort is part of the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, which aims to increase traffic safety. In 2015, 102 people died on Austin’s streets – the most ever recorded. Twelve percent of those deaths were attributed to speed.

“I think anything that we can do that gives us more opportunities to be able to provide more safety to our neighborhoods is absolutely a direction we should pursue,” said Council Member Sheri Gallo.

Pending endorsement of the full Council, the city of Austin will add to its legislative priorities a change to the state’s prima-facie, or assumed, speed limit on residential roads in urban areas from 30 miles per hour to 25 mph – or even lower. The prima-facie speed limit applies to streets without posted speed limits, such as the street where the car hit Sokolic’s nephew. The city of Houston has already put its weight behind such an effort.

“What we, and I think other major urban cities, are looking to do is to try and lower that … simply to try and bring down the rate at which we have automobiles going in pedestrian-heavy sections of our cities to try and avoid many of those fatalities,” said Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations.

According to a 2011 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety on crashes that occurred from 1994 to 1998, 20 percent of pedestrians struck by a car traveling 30 mph died. When vehicles traveled 25 mph, the fatality rate dropped to 12 percent.

However, a 2017 bill dropping the state’s prima-facie speed has yet to be filed. Local advocate Jay Blazek Crossley is working to ensure that will change soon. He helped get a bill filed in 2015 that would have lowered the prima-facie speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph.

“We’re hoping to save lives,” said Crossley.

Crossly also emphasized the importance of street design in encouraging – or discouraging – drivers from following speed limits. Part of what Council members approved Wednesday was an amendment to an Austin Transportation Department manual to ensure a more consistent relationship between design and speed limits.

“A lot of times what is posted is 5, 10 miles below what actually the design of the street is,” said Eric Bollich, managing engineer with the department. “Rather than give that mixed message to road users, (we are) trying to put in line, as best we can, that target speed with what we design the street to be.”

Council members also approved safety zone pilots, or neighborhood streets where the city will test out a 25 mph speed limit. Staff said it’s unclear yet which neighborhood streets might qualify.

The lone dissenter of these recommendations was Council Member Don Zimmerman.

“People are complaining that we’re already in gridlock,” said Zimmerman. “They want things to move faster, not slower.”

In response, Sokolic issued a challenge.

“If somebody can’t take 20 extra seconds to go through a neighborhood, they can just give me a call,” she said. “They can come visit us. That’s fine.”

Audio from McGlinchy’s KUT story is embedded below:

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by KUT News. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr for KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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