(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks highlighting the benefits of Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, at La Crosse Municipal Transit Utility, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, U.S., June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
By Andy Sullivan
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) – President Joe Biden frequently promises to get America moving again with new spending on roads and other infrastructure. Pittsburgh city council member Erika Strassburger hopes he can slow things down.
Like dozens of other U.S. cities, Pittsburgh is trying to tame automotive traffic and lower the number of pedestrians struck by vehicles, which average 250 per year for the city. But officials say they are handcuffed by federal guidelines that advise traffic engineers to set speed limits based on how fast drivers are traveling — not how fast they should be going.
That could force the city to actually raise speed limits on dangerous streets like Shady Avenue, a winding road in the affluent Squirrel Hill neighborhood where 9 out 10 drivers exceed the 25 miles-per hour (40 kph) speed limit.
“It’s a huge problem, not just here — it’s all over the city. People just drive too fast,” said Strassburger, standing by a highway-style guardrail that was installed after a deadly crash.
Per-capita traffic deaths in the United States are more than double that of other developed countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and high speeds factor in roughly one-third of those collisions. Average driving speeds have increased steadily in recent years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency estimates that 38,680 Americans died in traffic accidents on pandemic-emptied streets in 2020, the highest figure since 2007. New York, Seattle and Boston have all seen traffic deaths fall after lowering speed limits over the past decade.
Oklahoma City and Chattanooga, Tennessee, are among the cities that have objected to the 85th percentile rule, along with the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which represents 86 North American cities and transit agencies.
The administration is currently updating the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which currently recommend that speed limits should be set based on how fast 85% of vehicles are traveling. Those guidelines have been adopted as law in many states, including Pennsylvania.
Critics say that rule, in use since the 1930s, locks in an auto-centric approach that is dangerously unsuited to urban streets, ratcheting speeds higher while pedestrian deaths have climbed 50% over the past decade.
“It is a very biased and outdated approach,” said Karina Ricks, Pittsburgh’s transportation director. Enforcement is further hampered by state laws that ban the use of radar or automatic speed cameras.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation is developing alternate methods for cities like Pittsburgh, but says the 85th percentile rule ensures that speed limits aren’t set artificially low. “Motorists drive the speed at which they feel safe and comfortable,” spokeswoman Alexis Campbell said.
The National Transportation Safety Board in 2017 recommended dropping the 85th percentile rule. A draft of the new manual released in December kept it in place, but after Biden took office his administration tapped the brakes to solicit more public input. The Federal Highway Administration is now reviewing the 25,000 comments it received.
“It was important to get enough time to get everybody’s feedback,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a bicycle commuter himself, told cycling advocates in March.
Congress might step in. Legislation advancing in the House of Representatives this week would specify an alternate method to set speed limits, but a similar bill in the Senate does not contain that requirement.
State transportation agencies say a further rewrite would delay safety improvements in the current version by several years. They say the 85th percentile rule is useful for other applications, such as timing red lights.
“It’s one piece of the puzzle,” said Jim McDonnell of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
In Pittsburgh, residents and officials say they need more help to make their streets safe. Along Frankstown Avenue, which cuts through the historic Black neighborhood of Homewood, traffic studies show that 98% of drivers exceed the 25 mile per hour speed limit. The 85th percentile rule would raise that speed limit to 45 miles per hour (72 kph). At that velocity, a pedestrian has an 80% chance of dying in a crash.
Street vendor Akeem Everett sets out orange traffic cones at an intersection to discourage accidents like the one he saw recently, when a driver hit a child.
He doesn’t think he’ll get help any time soon.
“We complained about it, but what are they doing about it? Nothing,” he said. “Politics, you know how that is.”