Fairness of D.C. Speed Limits Debated

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005

District officials have ordered up a study of city speed limits after complaints by drivers that some are unfairly low, especially in places where the city has installed speed cameras.

"These are places where, if you go the speed limit, you become a road hazard," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who introduced legislation mandating the study. The council's Public Works and the Environment Committee held a hearing on the issue yesterday.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) ticked off a list of locations where she thought the speed limit was set unfairly low. The list included the 2400 block of Benning Road NE, which is eight lanes wide but has a speed limit of 30 mph, and M Street SE, which is six lanes wide with a 25-mph limit. She also noted a section of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE where the speed limit changes from 25 to 35 to 20 mph in a two-block stretch.

"D.C. is known as a 'gotcha' government," Schwartz said. "No one is arguing against the speed cameras, but we need to make sure they are fair and that on the streets where you have these speed cameras the limits are not unnaturally low."

Dan Tangherlini, the city's transportation director, said each location has its own history and quirks. For example, he said, Benning Road has been the site of numerous accidents, including one that caused three deaths. He said his department is already conducting a study.

He said Benning Road will be studied this summer, as analysts look at road design, traffic signals, volume, access, crash history and adjacent land use to establish reasonable speed limits.

The study, which will be paid for mostly from the District's share of federal highway funds, should be completed by the end of the year.

"No one's done a comprehensive study [of speeds] before," Tangherlini said.

He said it is unfair to compare District road speeds to those of the suburbs because the city has more pedestrians. He said 12 percent of District residents walk to work and 35 percent take transit.

"The number of people who walk to work in Potomac is tiny," he said.

Tangherlini said that over the years, city speed limits have been lowered in response to complaints by residents about speeding.

Mendelson said the way the city's speed camera system is set up lends itself to unfairness and predictability.

"You need to eliminate the perception of speed traps by evaluating limits and move the cameras around," he said. "You would never get a sense where the cameras are, and people would slow down."

Inspector Kevin Keegan of the D.C. police department's operations command division said the city's photo-radar speeding program, started in August 2001, has reduced speeding significantly.

During the warning period in July 2001, 31 percent of drivers in the enforcement zone were speeding "aggressively," Keegan said. By April 2005, that rate was 3.1 percent.

"While there seems to be a belief that there are somehow locations where cameras can be used to generate revenue and locations where cameras can be used to promote safety, the fact is there are simply locations where people are violating traffic laws with total disregard for the safety of our residents," Keegan said.

"Do these cameras generate fines in the meantime? Absolutely, as would traditional traffic enforcement in these same areas."


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