Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Let's help drivers obey speed limit laws

We’ve followed the ongoing news about the proposed traffic cameras to enforce laws against driving over the speed limit, and we remain in favor of them. The ultimate goal for using the cameras is improved street safety. Driving in excess of the speed limit endangers all other users of the road, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and other motorists. 
The posted speed limit on Stockton Drive is 25 mph.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Using cameras to ticket speeders is a legitimate enforcement tool, but instead of just catching speeders, we’d like to propose that the best initiative would be to take steps to reduce speeding before it happens.  But how to do that?

When we bring up the topic of speed limits while chatting with our  fellow Chicagoans (yeah, we’re really fun at cocktail parties), it’s amazing to find out how many people don’t know what the speed limit is in the city in general, or on main streets near their homes, or even on the stretch on which they live. Even if they’ve lived in one place and driven regularly, they often simply don’t know. Do you know any of the above with certainty?

So, not knowing what the posted speed limit is, people simply drive according to the street’s “design speed”, which is how fast the street is “telling” them to drive, based on factors like the width of the lanes, how clear the center lane markings are, the distance between signalized crossings, and so forth. We’ll post another day soon about the topic of a street's design speed, but for now suffice to say that many Chicago streets are wide, straight and poorly marked, so their design speed gives drivers visual permission to feel comfortable zooming along in excess of the posted speed limit.

Given those points above, we believe that an important part of the initiative of using speed cameras to enforce safety is to give drivers a chance to know the speed limit, and slow down. We believe that most drivers are not trying to speed, break the law or endanger other people. Let’s help them do the right thing. 

In case anyone’s interested, here’s our unsolicited advice on how to do that:

The speed limit in Chicago is 30 mph unless otherwise posted.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
1/ Help people know what the speed limit is in general through a big PR campaign to alert citizens that the speed limit in Chicago is 30 mph unless otherwise posted. Yup, it's 30 mph. We couldn’t find any information about speed limits on the city’s web site, which is otherwise chockful of information, so the city really needs to address that. 

We only learned about the 30 mph law after doing a tedious web search that finally resulted in this page on the Illinois State Police site. No wonder no one knows what the speed limit is. This basic information needs to be taught and reinforced over and over, so there’s no confusion. Any time a driver in Chicago is wondering if he’s going too fast, he can at least know he needs to stay under 30 mph, if he has that basic knowledge. That’s a start. 

2/ Speed limits signs: Replace the crappy faded ones, add new ones, and move existing signs to new locations.

Do we need to say much more about this point? Speed limit signs need to be visible: Bright, numerous, hanging straight, and not obscured by tree branches. Because people no longer register details of a familiar scene, consider relocating existing signs to another location to mix it up, and catch the eye of a “regular” driver on the street. Just a thought.  

(Photo seen on radarsign.com)
3/ Give people feedback on how fast they’re driving currently, before the ticket cameras are switched on.

Set up those big electronic signs that tell drivers how fast they’re going compared to what the posted speed limit is. This provides immediate feedback to a driver to warn her if she’s in excess of the limit, and may prompt her to take it at a slower pace next time. Do that extensively for a few weeks before the ticket cameras are turned on, to give people practice regulating themselves.

It would be nice if there were some sort of positive feedback function built in to the machine. Maybe a big “Thank you” and thumbs up could flash for a second for appropriate speeds, but a sad face and “Please slow down!” could appear for each speeder. It’s amazing sometimes how seemingly gimmicky things like that are effective.

Thumbs up for safe driving.
4/ Give people an incentive to slow down besides just being a good citizen.

To carry on with the theme of positive reinforcement: If we can use speed limit cameras to issue tickets to lawbreakers, let’s also use them to reward  people driving within the speed limit. How about if every 500th law-abiding driver caught on camera were sent a small “good driver certificate" and a coupon for $5 at Starbucks? It would be a thrill to find that inside an orange envelope from the city instead of a $100 citation. We recognize this idea is a little out there, but again: gimmicks + positive reinforcement often = behavior changes.

Those are some of our suggestions. Can you think of any others?


  1. I think the fifth idea is to take what you said about a street's design speed and systematically eliminate the streets with "high design speeds" through resurfacing programs, curb fixing programs, sidewalk repair programs, and other construction projects that "open" the street. Capitalize on this time that the street is a "makeup" period and fix the design.

  2. I agree and actually had that as the final idea, but the post was getting long and I didn't want to drone on. I'll cover that in a separate entry about the design speed of streets. Reconfiguring streets is a big, long-term project. I thought we could start with Starbucks coupons. -- Michelle Stenzel