U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
There is broad consensus among global roadway safety experts that speed control is one of the most important methods for reducing fatalities and serious injuries. Speed is an especially important factor on non-limited access roadways where vehicles and vulnerable road users mix.
A driver may not see or be aware of the conditions within a corridor, and may drive at a speed that feels reasonable for themselves but may not be for all users of the system, especially vulnerable road users, including children and seniors. A driver traveling at 30 miles per hour who hits a pedestrian has a 45 percent chance of killing or seriously injuring them.1 At 20 miles per hour, that percentage drops to 5 percent.1 A number of cities across the United States, including New York, Washington, Seattle and Minneapolis, have reduced their local speed limits in recent years in an effort to reduce fatalities and serious injuries, with most having to secure State legislative authorization to do so.
States and local jurisdictions should set appropriate speed limits to reduce the significant risks drivers impose on others—especially vulnerable road users—and on themselves. Addressing speed is fundamental to the Safe System Approach to making streets safer, and a growing body of research shows that speed limit changes alone can lead to measurable declines in speeds and crashes.2
Posted speed limits are often the same as the legislative statutory speed limit. Agencies with designated authorities to set speed limits, which include States, and sometimes local jurisdictions, can establish non-statutory speed limits or designate reduced speed zones, and a growing number are doing so. While non-statutory speed limits must be based on an engineering study, conducted in accordance with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) involving multiple factors and engineering judgment, FHWA is also encouraging agencies to use the following3:
- Expert Systems tools.
- Safe System approach.
Based on international experience and implementation in the United States, the use of 20 mph speed zones or speed limits in urban core areas where vulnerable users share the road environment with motorists may result in further safety benefits.4
When setting a speed limit, agencies should consider a range of factors such as pedestrian and bicyclist activity, crash history, land use context, intersection spacing, driveway density, roadway geometry, roadside conditions, roadway functional classification, traffic volume, and observed speeds.
To achieve desired speeds, agencies often implement other speed management strategies concurrently with setting speed limits, such as self-enforcing roadways, traffic calming, and speed safety cameras. Additional information is in the following FHWA resources:
- FHWA Speed Management website.
- Self-Enforcing Roadways: A Guidance Report.
- Noteworthy Speed Management Practices.
- Jurisdiction Speed Management Action Plan Development Package.
- Traffic Calming ePrimer.
1. Pilkinton, Paul. Reducing the speed limit to 20 mph in urban areas: Child deaths and injuries would be decreased. BMJ, Published April 29, 2000.
2. Hu, W. and J. Cicchino (2019). Lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25 mph in Boston: effects on vehicle speeds. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
3. FHWA’s Methods and Practices for Setting Speed Limits: An Informational Report, (2012).
6. Gayah et al. Safety and Operational Impacts of Setting Speed Limits below Engineering Recommendations. Accident Analysis and Prevention, Vol. 121, pp.43-52, (2018).