COLUMBIA — Speed limits in two residential areas have been reduced from 30 mph to 25 mph in accordance with a study to determine if reducing speeds in neighborhoods is effective.
The study, which began in November 2008, might lead to a city ordinance allowing other neighborhoods to request that their speed limits be reduced.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe brought up the issue of speeding in residential areas to the City Council last year because of several complaints made by residents in her ward.
Hoppe said that instead of dealing with individual complaints, the city could implement a program that would comprehensively address the issue.
“I think it takes a lot of time to follow up on each individual request,” Hoppe said, adding that a citywide program might be a better approach to a problem that continually resurfaces.
Hoppe said the council was skeptical about installing signs throughout the city because it was unsure of the effectiveness of a reduced speed limit, and it decided that letting neighborhoods apply to have their speed limits reduced would be the best approach. “Maybe there are some neighborhoods where speed isn’t a concern or they like the 30 mph speed limit,” Hoppe said.
The council decided that instead of implementing a citywide application program right away, it would first try a speed limit experiment to see whether lowering speed limits in residential areas would be effective.
The council approved the speed limit pilot in August and agreed to pay MU researchers $10,000 to conduct the study. The budget allowed two neighborhoods to participate in the study: Shepard Boulevard and Rothwell Heights.
MU researcher Carlos Sun began by measuring drivers’ speeds when the speed limit was 30 mph. After the initial measurements were taken, 14 new signs were installed in the neighborhoods reflecting a speed of 25 mph.
Six new signs were installed in Shepard Boulevard — three of them near the entrances to the neighborhood and three where the 20 mph school zone ends, said Scott Bitterman, supervising engineer of the city’s traffic division. Eight new signs were installed in Rothwell Heights. "Basically, what we were trying to do was install them where you leave main roads and enter neighborhoods," he said.
A second measurement was then taken to determine whether the new signs alone made a difference in drivers’ speeds, but the results of this measurement cannot be released until the study is finished.
The PedNet Coalition, Columbia’s pedestrian and bicycle nonprofit, is beginning the third leg of the project: informing residents of the benefits of the speed limit pilot program and educating them about the dangers of speeding.
Ian Thomas, executive director of the coalition, said that educational outreach is a vital part of the pilot program. “A lot of people don’t pay a lot of attention when they’re driving, so they’re likely to just drive the same whether there’s a 30 mph sign or a 25 mph sign,” Thomas said. But if there is some discussion or explanation about it in the right kind of setting, he said, it is more likely that the information will stimulate a change in behavior.
Part of the coalition’s educational campaign includes providing residents with British research data that shows pedestrian fatality rates for different driving speeds. The research shows that if a car hits a pedestrian going 40 mph, the collision is fatal 85 percent of the time, but if a car hits the pedestrian going 20 mph, the collision is fatal only 15 percent of the time, according to Thomas.
Thomas said that if the pilot program is successful, the hope is that the city will enact a permanent program that will include all neighborhoods. The proposed program would allow any neighborhood or homeowner association to apply for a 20 or 25 mph speed limit. A voting majority would be required to install the new signs.
If the study results show that people have reduced their speeds after the educational campaign, “I think that should be enough evidence that the City Council will go ahead and pass the new ordinance so that any neighborhood can become a reduced-speed neighborhood,” Thomas said.
After the educational campaign is completed, Sun will take a third measurement to see if the combination of the reduced speed limit signs and educational outreach caused a further improvement of speeds.
Sun said in an e-mail that he will release a final report of the study to the council in May or June.