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Seattle reduces speed limits, adds new signals as part of initiative to end traffic deaths

SDOT crew members installing a new 25 MPH sign. (Photo credit SDOT/Flickr)

The “Vision Zero” initiative in Seattle has a goal to end traffic deaths and serious injuries on city streets by 2030. The city released key accomplishments and details about the progress made on the initiative in 2020, though the work is not yet done.

A few of the changes implemented in 2020 as part of Vision Zero include: reduced speed limits on 72% of Seattle’s major streets to 25 miles per hour or less; the addition of pedestrian-first walk signals to 30% of signalized intersections; and improvements along Rainier Avenue South, which is “Seattle’s most crash prone, high-injury street.”

Vision Zero hasn’t been without its bumps in the road, though, with preliminary data showing that 24 people died in vehicle-related crashes last year, making it “one of the most deadly of recent years.”

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Lower speed limits

According to a blog post from the Seattle Department of Transportation, reducing speed limits has proven capable of reducing crashes by 20% to 40%.

“Lowering vehicular speeds is a key piece of our Vision Zero efforts, because speed is the critical factor in the frequency and severity of crashes,” the post states. “When drivers slow down by just a few miles per hour, it has two main powerful impacts. First, it makes crashes less likely to occur in the first place. And second, a person who is hit by a driver traveling a lower speeds is much more likely to survive the incident.”

This year, the city is working with the Washington State Department of Transportation to lower speed limits on state-owned streets in Seattle as well.

“Seattle saw dramatic reductions in crashes and injuries after installing 25 MPH speed limit signs,” SDOT writes. “Seattle is one of the first cities in the country to study how reducing speed limits and adding more speed limit signs improves safety for everyone. That study found powerful impacts, observing that there was a 20%- 40% drop in the number of crashes in locations with new 25 mph speed limit signs (this data was collected before the drop in traffic volumes due to the pandemic).”

Seattle’s approach to speed limits was also highlighted as a national best practice for others to follow.

Pedestrian-first walk signals

The SDOT post says adding more pedestrian-first walk signals at intersections has “nearly halved” the number of people hit with vehicles while crossing the street.

These updated traffic signals give people a few seconds of a head start to begin walking across the street before the cars get a green light. “Leading pedestrian intervals” make people in the crosswalk more visible to drivers, reducing the risk of being hit by a car.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan had a goal to add 250 pedestrian-first intersections in 2020, which was achieved in June. There are now 316 of these intersections, which is 30% of all traffic signals in Seattle.

SDOT touts pedestrian-first intersections completed early

“We analyzed traffic data in the crosswalks where pedestrian-first intersections have been in place for at least a year and have seen a nearly 50% reduction in the number of people hit by cars while crossing the street,” SDOT writes. “Serious injuries and fatalities in these locations fell by 33%. ”

The SDOT expects to add 60 more of these walk signals in 2021.

Redesigning dangerous streets

Last fall, SDOT says it implemented a second phase of improvements along Rainier Avenue South, which it says is Seattle’s most crash prone, high-injury street.

Work has begun to redesign Rainier Avenue South from Hillman City to Rainier Beach with safety improvements, including reducing the speed limit, supporting transit reliability with red bus lanes, increasing pedestrian safety, and adding protected turn lanes to reduce turn-related crashes.

“Our work to increase safety along Rainier Ave S is far from done,” SDOT writes. “In 2021, we’ll be putting in a new traffic signal at Rainier Ave S and Rose St, and thanks to a 2021 budget amendment, we’re able to restore funding to support sidewalk upgrades along Rainier Ave S.”

Read more about Vision Zero online here

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