It’s About to Get Easier for Colorado Cities to Set Safer Speed Limits

Unfortunately for Denverites, the bill omits many segments of deadly state highways like Federal Boulevard and Colfax Avenue.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs

If cities in Colorado want to lower the speed limit on their streets, they first have to justify the change using the “85th percentile rule” — an old traffic engineering practice that accommodates dangerously high travel speeds instead of seeking to create safer street conditions.

With the passage of House Bill 1191, which now awaits Governor Hickenlooper’s signature, that’s about to change — at least for residential streets.

The 85th percentile rule holds that speed limits should be set at a rate that 85 percent of drivers obey. The upshot is that even when people want to lower the speed limit where they live, they can’t — because people are already driving fast.

Say you want to reduce the speed limit on your street to 25 mph. Under the 85th percentile rule, you have to show that 85 percent of drivers are already traveling at that speed or slower before lowering the limit.

HB 1191 frees cities and towns from the 85th percentile rule. Instead, they can change speed limits because they believe it would reduce crashes or make walking and biking safer.

“It’s clarifying the law so that county commissioners can have discretion to use this other criteria in order to be able to make adjustments to speed to protect public safety,” said Senator John Kefalas, who co-sponsored the bill with Senator Beth Martinez Humenik and Representative Faith Winter.

Under the new rules, cities and towns still have to conduct a traffic study when considering a speed limit change, but that would no longer be the sole binding factor. The law is “permissive,” Kefalas said, meaning it allows cities to consider different criteria without requiring them to do so.

Unfortunately for Denverites, the bill passed with a late amendment, to appease some Republicans, that omits many segments of deadly state highways like Federal Boulevard and Colfax Avenue. The law only applies to “residential neighborhoods.” Legally, that means blocks where 51 percent of the buildings are residential dwellings and the speed limit is 35 mph or lower.

Martinez Humenik, a Republican sponsor, said some of her colleagues did not want the law to be used to slow down freight traffic on state highways “that went by their community, not through it.”

Kefalas said he’d consider a more substantive bill next year if constituents came forward and said HB 1191 isn’t enough.

  • MT

    So we can lower speed limits on residential streets, and residential streets are defined as already having speed limits 35 mph or less. Lovely.
    And 51% of the buildings must be residential? So an apartment building with hundreds of people living there counts as one, so only one other building on that block could disqualify the street as being residential. Yikes.

    Why only residential streets anyway? Is is better for traffic to be going at deadly speeds on streets with lots of businesses? This logic is ridiculous.

    • mckillio

      Right but if the speed limit is 35 mph, it’s now much easier to get it dropped to 20 mph.

      • MT

        Yeah, that’s definitely good. But the restrictions on anything above 35 or with 50% non-residential are ridiculous. Those are going to be the streets that need it the most.

        • mckillio

          Completely agreed and that should be fought for but you have to take wins when they’re given.

  • mckillio

    Definitely a step in the right direction. I sure hope DPW is ready for me to open a lot of tickets.

  • TourDeBoulder

    This fall we get the Republicans out of the State Senate!

    • TakeFive

      At this point in time, which is waay too early, I’ve got the Senate as lean Republican and the Governorship as a total tossup. Not sure she’ll get the nod but AG Cynthia Coffman could be a strong candidate for Governor. In any case, in metro Denver (as opposed to City of Denver) it’s ‘we’ independents that are the deciders.

  • jcwconsult

    The title is incorrect. It should say:
    It’s About to Get Easier for Colorado Cities to Set Less Safe Speed Limits, artificially below the normal and safe travel speeds for the express purpose of running for-profit speed traps with most tickets going to safe drivers.

    Engineers and police officers know in advance that just lowering the speed limits does NOT lower most drivers actual speeds – it just makes them eligible for predatory enforcement in speed traps.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • Camera_Shy

      How is 35 mph “the normal and safe travel speed” for a residential street? Or any street with a lot of pedestrian/sidewalk activity?

      • jcwconsult

        If the slowest 85% of the cars are at or under about 35 mph and the city wants that to be 85% at or under about 25 mph, then just painting 25s on the signs will NOT reduce the speeds by more than 1 or 2 mph. To get a reality of 85% of the cars at or under about 25 mph requires re-engineering of the street so that 85% of the drivers now feel safe and comfortable only at speed up to about 25 mph.

        This is the reality of how it actually works. Just painting lower numbers on the signs without engineering changes is about setting up speed traps for profits, but enforcement for profits is 100% wrong.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • mckillio

          What a crock, you’re implying that every street has speed enforcement, that’s incredibly far from the truth. Most people complain that there isn’t enough speed enforcement.

          Yes many people will still speed but all it takes is one person not speeding to slow everyone else down, increasing the safety for everyone.

          And there’s nothing predatory about enforcing speed limits. Having too high of speed limits is certainly predatory to those that are more likely to get hit by one of those speeding vehicles .

          • jcwconsult

            That IS the point. No city can possibly enforce speed limits on all streets all the time, or even a significant percentage of the streets for any significant percentage of the time. Enforcement, as a practical matter, becomes a random “gotcha” for-profit system. That is true for speed cameras as well, because installing enough cameras to reduce the actual speeds means the expensive cameras won’t collect enough total fines to even pay their own high costs – and cities will not use cameras if they lose money. So enforcement does not change the actual travel speeds.

            Serious changes in the actual travel speeds require engineering changes to the roads OR something close to 24/7/365 enforcement that no city can afford.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • mckillio

            I see no problem with having random enforcement, it’s better than consistent enforcement in one spot. There is no “gotcha”, don’t speed, it’s not hard, use cruise control.

            Some roads absolutely need to be reengineered for their current speed limits let alone reduced ones. But many don’t and their speed limits can be reduced tomorrow.

          • jcwconsult

            Random enforcement is a total “gotcha” system because any one person is likely to get a ticket maybe once in every few years, not often enough to change behavior. It becomes an annoying “road tax”, and the pattern of speeds stays the same.

            If the slowest 85% of the cars are at or below XX speed and the road is posted for the nearest interval of XX, then its traffic flow will almost always be the smoothest and safest with the fewest crashes. Enforcement there would be rare to non-existent because there won’t be enough violators far enough above the posted limit to make enforcement either necessary or profitable.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • mckillio

            Unless speed limits aren’t posted, there is no “gotcha”. Follow the speed limit, it’s not hard and there’s no excuse not to.

          • jcwconsult

            Those in the revenue stream from speeding ticket profits with both officers and cameras LOVE your view on the issue. They know for certain that limits posted well below the safest 85th percentile speeds will NOT get compliance – using any level of enforcement that cities can afford. But those artificially-low limits WILL produce serious profits forever, so long as the engineering changes to lower the actual speeds are never done. The camera companies are experts at finding the locations that will produce the most profits – AFTER violation rates drop by about half after 6 to 12 months of operation. And, as long at the cameras make profits, the cities have a perverse incentive to never use the engineering changes that would reduce actual travel speeds.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • Camera_Shy

            “…traffic flow will almost always be the smoothest and safest with the fewest crashes.”

            Oh, I see you mean safest for cars, not peds.

          • jcwconsult

            NHTSA statistics include injuries and fatalities for all road users involved in crashes.
            Example to change the actual speeds: If the slowest 85% of the cars are at or below 35 mph and authorities want 85% to be at or below 25 mph, the ONLY way to achieve that is to degrade the roadway environment so most drivers now feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to about 25 mph. No amount of enforcement that would ACTUALLY be used will achieve lower travel speeds. Those who suggest more enforcement by cameras or officers often unwittingly facilitate the predatory enforcement for profits that both cities and the for-profit cameras companies know in advance and for certain will not work – but WILL be profitable.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

          • mckillio

            If you can’t help but speed, you don’t deserve to have a license. Take some responsibility for your actions.

          • jcwconsult

            I am only interested in facts and how things actually work, not in wishful thinking non-solutions that lead to predatory for-profit enforcement rackets that don’t help. Any experienced engineer or traffic officer who is allowed by their bosses to tell the truth to the public will confirm that posted speed limits set well below the actual 85th percentile speeds of traffic do NOT change the travel speeds by any significant amount, even with very regular enforcement but without engineering changes to the roadways.

            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • GRY

      The concept that speed causes collisions is the flawed idea in lowering speed limits. Yes, higher speed mean collisions are more deadly, but the speed rarely causes the crash.
      The real solution is to reduce distracted drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Looking both ways before entering a roadway is a good start and this is an often not practiced skill is what leads to deadly results.

      • jcwconsult

        Correct. A large FHWA survey put speed as the cause in about 5%.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • GRY

          Thanks James for the confirmation. I had seen a FHWA list that ranked the causes of accidents on non-interstate roads and speed was the 8th ranked item. Lane changes without a signal, improper turns, DUI, blocking or impeeding traffic, crossing the center line, were all more likely to cause a collision.

          • jcwconsult

            The rea$on$ authoritie$ u$e $peed a$ the mo$t $eriou$ i$$ue to focu$ on are obviou$ to mo$t ob$erver$, and tho$e rea$on$ do NOT include $afety. Speed enforcement is usually a profit center, and engineering changes that would really work are a cost item.
            James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • GRY

    Seems like the laws are working toward a speed that reduces the speed an auto or truck may travel to mimic the speed of bicyclist and pedestrians. This is a flawed concept. Auto, truck, bicycle and walkers should be as separate as possible. Distracted drivers cause accidents. Distracted pedestrians or bicyclists will die when blended in with automobile or truck traffic. See recent autonomous vehicle accident in AZ. Pedestrian jay-walking bike, into 40 MPH traffic=death. Let’s get and keep different modes of travel as separate as possible.

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