It’s a stark, little-known set of facts: A pedestrian unlucky enough to be hit by a car or truck going 25 miles an hour stands a good chance of surviving and escaping serious injury.
But at a mere five mph faster? Better have good hospitalization coverage and life insurance, because the chances of crippling injury or even death turn hair-raising.
Which is why Coral Gables is about to drop speed limits across much of the city below 30 mph, joining a safe-streets-through-slow-speed movement that ranges from New York and Boston to London and Paris.
The City Beautiful is set to lower speed limits on its residential streets to 25 mph and 20 mph (the latter in gated neighborhoods like Gables Estates and Cocoplum, whose streets are public) from the state default 30 mph that applies in places without posted signs. The city commission already endorsed the idea in a preliminary 4-1 vote and will vote for a second and final time as soon as later this month.
A difference of five mph may not seem like much, but the benefits could be big in terms of lives and limbs saved, experts say. Studies clearly show that 30 mph can be the dividing line between life and death, or grave injury, for pedestrians struck by motor vehicles. At that speed of impact, about half will be seriously injured and one in five will die, a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows. Above that, the odds of survival or escaping crippling injury dwindle very rapidly, the study shows.
“The facts are undeniable,” said Gables Commissioner Vince Lago, who has been pushing the idea for two years. “The lower speed limits create safer environments for our children to prosper. There is also a big community of individuals in Coral Gables who enjoy walking and biking. Lowering the speed limit is key to allowing that quality of life.”
The low-speed proposal, which has been approved by traffic regulators at Miami-Dade County, is part of a larger plan by the affluent suburban city of about 50,000 to encourage more of its residents to walk or cycle for short jaunts instead of driving by making its streets more inviting for people who are not in cars.
The Gables has set itself a goal of reducing its pedestrian and cyclist injuries in collisions with cars by 10 percent a year. For a city with a reputation for tranquil living, those numbers are nothing to dismiss: Between 2011 and 2015, 323 pedestrians and cyclists across the Gables were struck by cars, five of them fatally, according to figures provided by Atkins North America, an engineering firm working on a new comprehensive transportation plan for the city.
And while the fatalities occurred on busy thoroughfares like Bird and LeJeune roads, which are not subject to the new speed limits, the crashes happened all across the city, including on its famously quiet, tree-shaded residential streets — where many residents complain that motorists routinely blow through at speeds well above the 30 mph speed limit.
“They’re occurring in the neighborhoods,” Lago said of the collisions. “I saw those figures, and it really hit home.”
Enacting the measure would put the Gables among a select group of cities that have dropped speed limits below the 30 mph standard in the past two years, though most have gone even further, imposing new restrictions across the board. In 2013, the London borough of Islington was the first to pass blanket 20 mph speed limits; the restriction was later extended across the British capital, including to some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Paris and Milan are imposing new speed caps of 30 kilometers per hour, or 19 mph, and Spain will apply 30 kph limits in most urban areas across the country.
New York was the first American city to do so when Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed a 25 mph speed limit citywide in 2014 to cut down on traffic deaths. Boston is now working to lower the city speed limit to 25 mph, and Seattle this week began rolling out a plan to lower speed limits to 25 mph on main thoroughfares and 20 mph in neighborhoods.
In Miami-Dade, the tiny village of Biscayne Park reduced speed limits across most of the municipality to 25 mph in 2009. County public works officials could not say Friday whether any other municipalities had done the same before the Gables won the agency’s approval earlier this year.
The proposal seems to enjoy support among Gables residents. Lago and other commissioners say residents’ associations have been asking for lower speed limits for years. This week, 68 of 86 residents responding to a survey during several open houses on the transportation plan said they were in favor of lowering speed limits, citing safety as the reason, said consultant Jason King, of Dover, Kohl & Partners, calling that a solid sample for a city the size of the Gables. Those against cited fear of getting speeding tickets, he said.
The one commissioner to vote against the measure, Jeannett Slesnick, said she wanted to see a plan to enforce it first — something city administrators say they’re working on.
As it would roll out the new speed limits and new posted signs, the Gables would also embark on an informational and enforcement campaign, said City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark. Under its budget for next fiscal year, the city plans to beef up its policing of traffic laws and would strictly enforce the lower speed limits, she said. The city would also have to find money for scores of new signs, though the cost hasn’t been determined yet.
Some of that beefed-up enforcement will be aimed at speeding commuters who use Gables streets to bypass congested thoroughfares — a practice elected officials and many residents plainly hope that lower speed limits would discourage. A disproportionate number of the speeding tickets handed out by Gables police go to drivers who are not city residents, Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak told the commission.
Once it adopts the new speeds limits, some commissioners say, the city should post signs at Gables entrances warning motorists that, in effect, the rules are different here — just like the adjacent suburb of Pinecrest, notorious for its enforcement of traffic laws, does.
“We need to have the Pinecrest effect, so that once they’ve come into this city, they’re immediately braking,” Swanson-Rivenbark told commissioners.
If the Gables can in fact get people to adhere to 25 mph, or even close to it, one traffic-safety expert said, it should see a reduction in those injury numbers. There are other proven benefits, too, said Brian Tefft, author of the oft-cited AAA Foundation study: Traffic flow improves because cars move at a uniform pace.
But, he added, public education about the reasons for the lower speed limits is critical.
“When correctly set and applied, lower speed limits not only improve safety, but improve mobility and respect for the law,” he said. “In general, you need enforcement, along with education about changes in the speed limit and the reasons for the changes in the speed limit, so the public understands this is being done for safety reasons, and not simply to increase revenue from speeding tickets.”
Tefft said the data on the danger that speeds above 30 mph pose to a pedestrian are clear. It’s a consequence of basic physics and the way the human body reacts when struck by a vehicle at different speeds. At collisions below 25 mph, there is less risk of grave injury because cars make contact with pedestrians in the legs, arms or trunk. Above 30 mph, though, pedestrians tend to be knocked to the ground or be sent flying over the car, striking their heads hard on the asphalt or the car’s windshield, he said.
Experts also note that lower speeds increase the chance of avoiding a collision altogether. Traveling at higher speeds shortens reaction time and produces a kind of tunnel vision in motorists that reduces their effective field of vision, notes Gables-based planner Victor Dover.
There’s an enforcement twist: Chief Hudak said police usually don’t ticket drivers until seven mph over the posted speed limit because that’s what courts accept. That means Gables police now don’t ticket drivers in 30 mph zones until they hit about 37. In the 25 mph zones that would cover most of the city, motorists would have to hit 32 mph to earn a citation — though city officials emphasize that the goal is to get people as close as possible to 25 mph.
That’s much better than the present fix, when motorists can approach the speed at which all bets are off — 40 mph, when half of pedestrians struck will die — without getting a ticket, Lago said.
“I want to get people to ease off the gas pedal,” said Lago, who lives near the University of Miami and complains that motorists often blast by at 40 mph. “At 20 mph, you have opportunity to react. At 40, one miscue, one look away to grab a soda or a phone, can result in the loss of a life.”