Trimming speed limit to 25 mph could make ‘dramatic difference’ in traffic deaths, experts tell City Council

The speed limit on this section of West Roosevelt Road, near South Damen Avenue on the Near West Side, is 30 mph now, but the Chicago City Council is pondering whether it should be lowered to 25 mph.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Hundreds” of Chicago lives could be saved from traffic crashes every year if the city lowered its default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph — and such a measure wouldn’t aim to shake down drivers with more tickets, city officials said Wednesday.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), chair of the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, accelerated the conversation during a subject matter hearing on whether Chicago should follow other large cities that have reduced speed limits to deal with a spike in traffic deaths nationwide over the last decade.

No ordinance has yet been introduced to the council, but La Spata and several colleagues who spoke during Wednesday’s hearing suggested they’d be open to giving a citywide slowdown the green light.

Chicago’s pandemic-fueled wave of roadway fatalities crested with more than 180 deaths in 2021 and has ebbed since then, but at least 115 were still reported last year.

“This legislation does not bring those lives back, but it starts a conversation on legislation that potentially could save hundreds of lives in Chicago over the next decade,” La Spata said.

Speed limits have previously been cut in limited corridors of the city to 25 mph, but most city arteries give drivers a 30 mph ceiling.

Cutting that by just 5 mph might not sound like much, but “a little bit can really go a long way when it comes to speed management,” according to Vig Krishnamurthy, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Transportation.

He pointed to research showing a pedestrian’s odds of surviving being hit by a vehicle moving 25 mph are five times better than a person struck at up to 35 mph.

Aside from reducing blunt-force trauma, lower speed limits make “a very dramatic difference” increasing drivers’ reaction time and stopping distance, according to Audrey Wennink, senior director at the Metropolitan Planning Council.

“If cars are operating at 20-25 mph, it takes 85 feet to stop the vehicle, but at 30 mph, it’s 120 feet,” Wennink said.

In other cities that have slashed limits to 25 mph — including New York City, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. — the “worst speeding” by drivers going 40 mph or more has been shown to plummet more than 50%, Krishnamurthy said. And most drivers would pay attention to such a change, he said.

“Traffic behavior is just like any other social behavior: when we all just slow down a little bit and model the way we want our streets to work, it creates a little bit more of a move of everyone towards that direction we want to go,” he said.

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Carney noted “there are challenges” to changing the speed limit — namely changing hundreds of signs citywide.

“We are committed to working with with city council and our other city departments and relevant agencies to figure to do the heavy lifting that’s needed,” Carney said.

South Side Ald. David Moore (17th) said he wasn’t opposed to a potential ordinance, but questioned whether Chicago police have the resources to enforce a lower limit.

He also said the city should first prioritize infrastructure to improve walkability in South and West Side neighborhoods, where officials say Black residents are nearly four times more likely to die in crashes compared to white Chicagoans.

“I want to make sure that any dollars that we’re using are always going toward development first, and then we can begin [on speeding],” Moore said.

City Comptroller Chasse Rehwinkel said “fines and fees are meant to change behavior. They’re not meant to be a fiscal boon to the city in either way, and our policies, we intend to make sure, adhere to that goal.”

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