OPINION: Quick, what looms for Atlanta drivers? A big slowdown!

25 mph. Coming to a street near you. Photo by Bill Torpy

Some day, coronavirus isolation will end and Atlantans will return to the roads. And the Atlanta City Council has a surprise for you drivers: Most streets in the city will have a 25 mph speed limit.

It's called Vision Zero, a scheme created in the late 1990s in Sweden with the goal of squeezing roads and slowing down traffic so that no one gets killed. Hence the Zero.

The effort passed last week in a virtual City Council meeting on a consent agenda, a vote where routine and non-controversial items are lumped together and passed without discussion. The effort is “non-controversial,” I suppose, because most of the public doesn’t yet know about it.

“People will notice when they start driving on streets that they remember were 35 mph and are now 25,” said Councilman Howard Shook. “That’s when the light bulbs will go off.”

Yeah, blue flashing lights.

The effort is laudable: If you slow down cars you can save lives. A graphic put together by the city said nine out of 10 pedestrians survive being hit by a car at 20 mph, but it drops to five out of 10 at 30 mph.

That seems a bit high compared to most other literature I found. For instance, a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said, "The average risk of death for a pedestrian reaches 10% at an impact speed of 23 mph, 25% at 32 mph."

But the city wanted to win an argument, so it picked the best data available. Still, the point remains — slower is better if you’re to be struck by a vehicle.

The Vision Zero effort has been put into effect in 40-some cities across the U.S., mostly in the Northeast, Florida and on the Left Coast.

Proponents say Atlanta roads are dangerous, with 73 people killed last year, 40 in vehicles, 22 pedestrians, seven on motorcycles, three on scooters and one bicyclist, according to city of Atlanta figures. Seattle, they point out, averages about 20 traffic deaths from all modes of accidents.

During an Atlanta transportation committee hearing on March 11, a tearful Councilwoman Jennifer Ide said this cause was “personal” because she knew Alexia Hyneman, a 14-year-old girl who was hit while riding a bike on Monroe Drive near Grady High School. The girl has become the face of the effort and her father addressed the City Council that day, along with biking, running, walking and transit advocates.

Thomas Hyneman testifies in favor of an ordinance reducing the speed limit to 25 mph on most city of Atlanta streets during an Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee meeting at Atlanta City Hall on March 11, 2020. Hyneman sank into a depression after his daughter was killed crossing an Atlanta street in 2016. Therapy and a newfound passion for advocacy helped him to live again. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

“It’s beyond time for us to do something,” Ide said. “We personally don’t care if people’s commute takes five, 10, 15 minutes longer.”

The effort will be rolled out over the coming months with the city putting up about 1,000 new speed signs. The 25 mph limit will first appear on all city-controlled residential streets, collector roads and downtown arterial roads. The city will also talk to the state about lowering the speed limit on state routes or city streets where Atlanta cops are allowed to use laser guns.

The state must certify cities to run radar because of historical problems with municipalities using speed limits as revenue generators. Cities and the state must pick roads where that happens. If the city drops such designated roads to 25 mph without state approval, they can no longer run radar on them.

Vision Zero proponents also would like to see automated speed cameras because such devices don’t need overtime, nor do they racially profile. The camera’s eye only sees speeds and dollar signs. Fortunately, for now, the state only allows such speed cameras in school zones. Otherwise, if such cameras were pervasive, you could get three or four tickets each morning going to work.

Most Americans would prefer to have the cops catch them.

Atlanta police Officers T. Chambliss (foreground) and D. Brown in August 2012 as they waited with their laser guns for speeders on Hope Street and Metropolitan Avenue. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Josh Rowan, commissioner of the city’s new Department of Transportation, said he’d like to see some cameras some day, but not as a way to reach into drivers’ pockets.

“If they’re effective, we would love it if we didn’t collect revenue,” he told me. “We want to change behavior. We want people to slow down.”

Despite the altruism, governments love the money, especially now in this COVID-19 tax revenue wasteland. The Mid-Atlantic AAA district this year noted that the District of Columbia has issued more than $1 billion in traffic and parking tickets over the past three years, including 1,310,740 motorists captured last year “by the city’s array of automated traffic enforcement cameras.”

Ke Wu holds a picture of his father Jianchang Wu, who was struck and killed while trying to cross North Decatur Road in Atlanta. Ke Wu is seen here in March 2014, standing at the accident site, where a “slow down” sign had since been placed. The elder Wu and his wife were visiting their son from China. Their son believes the speed the vehicle was traveling contributed to the accident. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Rowan told me he has been driving 25 mph for months in Atlanta. “I find that people tell me I’m No. 1, but not with the index finger. And then they race me to the next red light,” he said. “I’d rather be moving and take 10 minutes longer than be sitting still.”

After the March 11 committee meeting, I drove for almost two hours in most areas of the city at 25 mph.

The first thing you notice is that your car does not want to go 25 on Monroe or Peachtree or West Wesley or Hollowell or Piedmont or Cascade.

I encountered a number of drivers growing frustrated behind me and then speeding around my vehicle. Some gave side glances or the stink eye. But none told me I was No. 1.

After my plodding odyssey, I interviewed a dozen Atlantans downtown. It was roughly 2-1 against. (I say “roughly” because a couple wavered back and forth.)

“I’m for it, but I can assure you the majority of Atlantans won’t,” said Greg Wimberly, who plies his trade in sales. “People hate change. They will always be in a rush.”

“People probably won’t pay mind to it,” said Rashad Wheeler, a Fulton County deputy, who’d prefer 30-35 mph.

“It’s bull,” said Mario Malcolm, a student at Atlanta Tech. “It’s a good way to make money for the city.”

I called Shelia Dunn, spokeswoman for the National Motorists Association, which was founded in 1982 to fight the 55 mph limit. “Motorists are apathetic until something affects them,” she said. “When they see this, they’ll be like, ‘Hey! What’s this?’

“By that time you can’t do anything. By then, it’s done.”

And this won’t be the end. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition notes that 25 mph is still too fast and “20 Is Plenty.”

But why stop there? Why not, “10 is zen?” Or “5, why bother to drive?”

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