Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

Speed limits and ODOT: A primer

Posted by on November 11th, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Some Portlanders will resort to
anything to slow people down.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Excessive speed. It’s a killer and it’s on the loose on streets throughout Portland.

It’s a problem and there are many ways to combat it. One of those is to reduce speed limits. But, as you’ll find out below, that’s far easier said than done.

Currently the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) holds the power to set speed limits in our state. Even on local roads, where they don’t have jurisdiction in terms of maintenance or engineering, all speed change requests must go through ODOT. This process is a thorn in the side of our local Bureau of Transportation.

Scene of fatal at Willamette and Haven-9

A sign that’s not easy to change.

The head of PBOT, Portland Mayor Sam Adams wants to change that. Gaining control over speed limits is one of his top three priorities for improving traffic safety. In a letter to ODOT about the issue back in May, Adams said he’d like to “streamline” the “sometimes lengthy process” to alter speed limits on streets within city limits (he also told The Oregonian last night that the ODOT process is “ridiculous”).

So, what exactly is that process? Why are Adams and others all up in arms about it? The graph below (created by ODOT) might give you an idea of why some think it could be streamlined:

ODOT’s “Process for Establishing Speed Zones” chart.

In light of a spate of recent traffic collisions involving humans traveling at much different rates of speed, we heard from ODOT spokesman Michael Mason. Mason shared a link to ODOT’s Traffic-Roadway Section Speed Zoning Program website.

On that site, ODOT says that their speed zones are based on “careful” studies. They also address the fact that lowering speed limits might not solve the problem:

“Many people believe that lowering posted speeds will mean fewer accidents, but studies do not prove this. Unrealistically low speeds frustrate many drivers, resulting in numerous speeding violations and unsafe driving, actually causing more accidents. Some motorists may try to make up time by taking a shortcut through residential or other areas that are not suited to higher speeds and increased numbers of cars.”

If a city or county wants to have a speed changed, they make a request to ODOT for a review of the area in question. In a subsequent investigation, ODOT takes a look at factors like accident history, “roadside culture” (which I assume to mean the environmental context of the area), traffic volumes, width of the roadway, and so on.

A key part of any speed limit analysis is what’s known as the “85th percentile speed” (anyone who has worked with PBOT on neighborhood traffic safety issues has heard them mention this concept). The 85th percentile speed is the point at or below which 85 percent of the vehicles are traveling. According to ODOT, that speed is used “as an indication of the speed most drivers feel is reasonable and safe.”

Once ODOT completes their investigation, a detailed report is sent out. If the city or county agrees with ODOT, the new speed zone is established. If they don’t, the request goes to the Speed Zone Review Panel. That panel is filled with reps from the Oregon Transportation Safety Committee, the Oregon State Police, the Association of Oregon Counties, the League of Oregon Cities, and the Department of Transportation. They read ODOT’s recommendation and listen to testimony from local authorities before making a final decision.

Speed limits are just one piece of the puzzle with this problem. Speed limit changes don’t mean anything without enforcement. And, no matter what remedy we come up with, we’ll be fighting an uphill battle until there’s a complete shift in culture and behavior that human life is more important than arriving at a destination a few seconds earlier.

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  • Mike November 11, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Why lower the speed limits when no one drives them anyways? People drive by my house between 35-45 every day, all day and its posted 25. And at least twice a day we get someone going 60-80.

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  • Nick V November 11, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    All that red tape might look good on my handlebars.
    Anyone else have a feeling that a lot of fat could be trimmed at ODOT?

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  • Vance Longwell November 11, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    C’mon now. This seems exceedingly comprehensive. Considering the importance of making good traffic decisions, is this not a good thing?

    Also it’s my impression that at least part of the reasoning behind this is to address police entrapment. Messing around with speed limits can be easily used to create zones where traffic citations are unavoidable. Ever driven to McMinville? Um, ya. That whole town runs on citation revenue.

    Careful streamlining perhaps. But only for the purpose of making the process more effective, and not to justify further harassing of motorists. Not that you’re meaning to harass… Ugh. Well, I hope you see my point.

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  • Jackattak November 11, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    One answer: SPEED BUMPS.

    Particularly just before the crosswalks at SW Park Ave & Market in the Park Blocks.


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  • Speed November 11, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Speed limits are one thing, and ODOT’s process is beyond ridiculous. But more than anything else, street design is what determines behavior in the right of way. Give a motorist 12 feet of lane width and more than two Portland-sized blocks of distance between stops and you can bet that 85th percentile will be driving at 40+ mph, regardless of the posted speed limit.

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  • Dan_Miles November 11, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    I can vouch first hand about the part where speed limits that seem too low frustrating drivers. I’ve seen a road near my house become dramatically safer after they RAISED the speed limit.

    Manipulating speed limits is not the answer, if we want to slow down traffic we need to make slower speeds “feel” appropriate through narrower streets and markings that increase the sensation of speed.

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  • Blair November 11, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    When driving an auto, SET THE PACE and drive the speed you would want someone driving past your house. There’s no more direct way to influence the speed on local streets than to make yourself the roadblock to speeding.

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  • Joe Rowe November 11, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    ODOT needs a de-claw on this and be taken off designing a CRC.

    PDOT blames ODOT… ODOT blames PDOT. zzzz. The ORS and OAR need updating so speed limits can be lowered locally and reasonably.

    Can Democrats dare mention 20 is plenty? Put it on the table?

    It’s gonna take a lot of H O P E.
    Democrats have had the Salem House, Senate and Gov. since 2006, they just finally bumped up the $10 Corporate minimum tax.

    Jonathan and Elly, you and all the reader comments are on fire this week. LOVE IT. It all connects.

    Tired of waiting for HOPE. I think the BTA should change from a 401c3 to a PAC. That’ll fix it.

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  • Val November 11, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I hate to mention things twice, but it seems appropriate here, as well: http://www.roadwitch.org.uk/ Road calming from the bottom up, for the fun of it.

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  • Brian November 11, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Thanks for this story.

    I live close in to Portland in Washington county. Some of the speed limits on the surface roads out here are really stupid fast. Curvy, no shoulder, 1000s of cars a day. Safety is obviously not a consideration.

    There is no REAL political will to make surface transportation safe in this state.

    Would be great to actually see some accountability dished out to all road users. But it will never happen….

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  • bikieboy November 11, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Joe (#8) – sign me up for 20 is Plenty, US Version, Zero Tolerance Remix.

    Ridiculous that our local streets are a default 25 mph.

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  • Paul Johnson November 11, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Speed bumps sound OK, but only if there’s channels that allow bicycles, fire equipment and busses to pass at normal speeds, otherwise they’re wasting time bumping vehicles easily felled by speed bumps, and civic vehicles that shouldn’t be subjected to additional wear and tear. Think <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speed_cushion”speed cushions.

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  • Dan November 11, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Lower speed limits, yes – but that’s only part of the solution. The entire car-dominant culture needs to be re-balanced. Motor vehicle operators need to be held responsible whenever they hit anything.

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  • Donna November 11, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    ODOT should only have control over the speed limit on the roads they maintain. If the locals have to take care of the maintenance & engineering, then the locals should be able to set the speed limits.

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  • KWW November 11, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    I wonder if the City can bypass this speed limit administrative process by erecting pedestrian stop lights, similar to others in the city. Why there are more of those lights in Powell and Foster are beyond me…

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  • TTse
    TTse November 11, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Until a stone-sober mother of 3 goes to prison for killing someone because she was doing 35 in a 25, we won’t see anything change.

    Again and again, someone kills someone and we hear the chorus of “Oh, they’ll have to live with the guilt for the rest of their lives. Do we really need to destroy 2 lives?”

    Umm, yeah, apparently we do. They were speeding. They killed someone. That sucks. It didn’t “just happen.”

    We lose nearly 40,000 people on the roads every year. Our current collective attitude is apparently not working.

    My request of the PPB traffic division is to stop with the speed traps where there are so few pedestrians and non-motorized road users (Morrison Bridge comes to mind) and start randomly staking out neighborhood streets. Haunt the neighborhoods. Become freakin’ ninjas and appear out of nowhere.

    Come on PPB, it’ll be fun! Think of it as the great challenge. “Where will they be next?”

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  • Schrauf November 11, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    My biggest concern is that the 85th percentile speed is a key part of the analysis.

    Do we really believe a safe speed is generally one that 84% of random motorists drive slower than? Holy crap, have you seen how unsafe many motorists drive? This “rule” implies only 15% of motorists drive unsafely fast.

    The analysis should use the 50th percentile speed, if anything.

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  • Vinny November 11, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    #5 and #6 are spot on. Lower speed limits might appear to be the correct solution but often have unforeseen consequences. Most often, the best long-term solution is to change the design so that it doesn’t feel as safe and drivers will slow down. Narrow the lanes, shorten the blocks, add wider lane striping. Build it like a raceway and people will drive accordingly.

    Speed bumps fall into the same trap. They might slow people down as they go over the bump but then they slam on the gas to make up for the lost time.

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  • Vinny November 11, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Regarding the 85th percentile speed thing: (maybe someone can look this up) ODOT can only set to speed limit up to 10 mph below the 85th percentile speed in 5 mph increments. For example, if it is measured at 42 mph the lowest they can legally set it is 35 mph.

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  • SkidMark November 11, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Oh please stop. People crawl around town in their cars. I pass them on my track bike. These speed limits were set in the 40’s when there were still cars with mechanical (non-hydraulic) brakes and here in the 21st century we have power disc brakes the size of dinnerplates with computer-controlled ABS.

    People in cars do not need to slow down all the time, just when situation calls for it, like sharing the lane with a bike. To do this you have to actually pay attention to your driving. This is what needs to change, motorists need to pay more attention to their driving. That way when they hit a cyclist the first thing out of their mouth won’t be “I didn’t see him.”

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  • ben November 11, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    My dream is that all cars have a radio controlled speed governor (cars actually have these, set at some very high speed) that limits them to 20 mph within the city. Stand on your gas pedal all you like, that’s as fast as your car will go until you get on the freeway. Accelerate to 20 as fast as you like, that’s your top speed.

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  • drew November 11, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Speed limits are universally ignored by drivers. When I am driving at the speed limit I get a crowd of SUVs behind me. And I mean inches from my bumper.
    If they were enforced, not only would our roads be safer, but the city would have more money than it knew what to do with.
    The cops watch as cavalcades of cars violate the law, and they do nothing. Their inaction assures drivers that it’s fine with them if they break speeding laws.
    But somehow they find it necessary bust bicyclists for rolling thru stop signs, at locations like Ladds addition.
    How about hire more cops to ticket speeding cars? And yes I mean one mph over the limit.
    The limit is just that- a limit. It’s okay to go 25 in a 35 zone. The fines would MORE than pay for the extra law enforcement.
    I would love it if Portland relied on citation money from speeding drivers. If you need to go 10mph over the limit, after getting a couple of tickets you will just learn to leave earlier.

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  • are November 11, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    local authority ought to have control of speed limits on its own roads, and on state roads within some guidelines. this would avoid the “speed trap” objection.

    that said, the chart above includes some redundant boxes, making the process appear slightly more cumbersome than it is.

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  • kitty November 11, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Skid: how do you get someone to “actually pay attention to their driving”? Distraction is an unfortunate matter of fact today and will be in the future. the solution is to make driving have less consequences for those involved.

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  • SkidMark November 11, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Maybe suspend or revoke their license if they get into a collision, or hit a pedestrian or cyclist?

    Outlaw texting and cell-phone use? Oh wait that goes into effort first on the new year.

    The solution is to educate drivers, and stress that a moment’s inattention could cost someone’s life.

    I can’t believe you think it’s acceptable for people to be distracted while driving.

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  • BURR November 12, 2009 at 12:04 am

    good thing they don’t just rely on the ’85th percentile’ or speed limits would be going UP all over the place!


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  • Velocentric November 12, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Since drivers don’t obey posted speed limits now, lowering them further will be the least effective solution.

    You control (driving) behavior with a balance of…


    If you don’t enforce the law it becomes meaningless. If drivers are rewarded for speeding they speed some more.

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  • Jpower November 12, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Speed bumps! Big ones. Nice and gentle for bikes, rip the front end off on cars.

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  • Stochelo November 12, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Blair (#7), bada fuckin’ BING. To my shame I drive more than I ride, but this is my approach. Jpower (#28) you are right on the money–a speed bump should be a command and not a suggestion.

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  • bbb November 12, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Speed limits show to all the world the department of transportation don’t care about anyone outside a auto. In fact the design death!

    We know the speed of 25 is the breaking point for non motorists. Yet we do nothing. We could use technology to control motorists, but again we do nothing.


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  • Fred November 12, 2009 at 8:45 am

    What we really need is better driver education and much tougher licensing requirements. Our driver tests should be much tougher with behind the wheel tests every two years at least. Each drivers test should include a basic physics test to understand the implications of driving a two ton car/truck.
    Also, why do I frequently observe drivers flying down my narrow residential street at speeds that are dangerous while running stop signs, then when they get to a highway they drive at or below the speed limit? Is this unique to Oregon?

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  • timtim November 12, 2009 at 9:15 am

    @ drew #22, Instead of hiring more cops why not install traffic control devices that auto ticket drivers in vehicles when speeding like in Europe? pretty simple there is a radar speed reader and a camera and the things linked up to a database with the dmv with your license photo and your car plates, If you speed you get a ticket in the mail. we all hate traffic court, and if you don’t pay your tickets I believe they suspend your license. anyway just some food for thought on your idea.

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  • ME 2 November 12, 2009 at 9:29 am

    I agree with earlier posts about the impact of design. I live in NE near the stretch of coffee shops and restaurants on Fremont (NE 42- NE 52). When I first moved there the SL was 35 mph. It was recently lowered to 2mph largely because of pressure from local businesses, but it hasn’t had much of an impact.

    The best traffic calming effect on my street is when the road is narrowed by parked cars directly opposite one another.

    My favourite calming option is the traffic circle. Every study I’ve heard of describes multiple positive benefits. They’ve proven effective at lowering speed and reducing driver frustration because there is no stop sign, but drivers have to actually pay attention and look when they approach them. They’ve lowered accidents at troublesome intersections. I also have a neighbour who is a cop and he mentioned that crime rates like B&Es fell in Hollywood once they installed traffic circles because they make it harder for crooks to have a quick get away.

    I say less stop signs and more traffic circles.

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  • ME 2 November 12, 2009 at 9:33 am

    In post 33, I meant to say Fremont between 42 and 52 was lowed from 35 mph to 20 mph.

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  • Jackattak November 12, 2009 at 9:39 am

    @timtim #32 –

    Those traffic control devices cause more problems in America than they’re worth. Many dispute them in court more often than you might think, plus they get abused by municipalities trying to get more money out of them (as a revenue generator).

    Now, do I dislike them? Absolutely not I think they’re wonderful. Drivers should be taxed more heavily as it is, in my opinion, and more of that tax should go to bike/ped infrastructure.

    Just saying they’re not very well accepted in America (I’ve lived in Germany where they’re prevalent) and that there are plenty of dbag attorneys who will take the city to court over them.

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  • SE Cyclist November 12, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I drive 25 mph and make full stops in residential areas and it really pisses off other motorists. We need a change of attitude.

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  • Oliver November 12, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Fred 31, you beat me to it. It illustrates the problem with the 85% rule.

    Most people, drive too slow on the freeway and way too fast on residential streets.

    85% of people feel safe doing 45 on a residential street in a Yukon because it doesn’t matter WHAT they hit and kill, they will be uninjured.

    But get them on a Freeway and their saftey threshold level drops due to perceieved consequences from crashing their giant ill-handling vehicle.

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  • El Biciclero November 12, 2009 at 10:02 am

    “Motor vehicle operators need to be held responsible whenever they hit anything.” –Dan (#13)

    Amen brotha’! I mentioned this on another post, but I think there should be a “…causing damage or injury” version of all traffic violations. Run a red light? $242. Run a red light and hit somebody? At least $1242; more, depending on how much damage or injury was done.

    “People in cars do not need to slow down all the time, just when situation calls for it, like sharing the lane with a bike. To do this you have to actually pay attention to your driving. This is what needs to change, motorists need to pay more attention to their driving.” –SkidMark (#20)

    This is one of the greatest failings of American over-engineered, over-signal-controlled roads. Drivers have become comfortable zooming around paying attention to nothing, letting “The System” be their guide. We have taken an approach that attempts to move everything out of the way, rather than expect drivers to watch out.

    “Distraction is an unfortunate matter of fact today and will be in the future. the solution is to make driving have less consequences for those involved.” –kitty (#24)

    What? I can only assume this is not what you meant to say. “Less Consequences”? For driving around distracted and running into people and things? If distraction is the problem, the solution is to take the bus. On the bus, you can text, talk on the phone, eat donuts, do makeup, read the paper, surf the web, watch the scenery, sleep–all the stuff people try to do in their cars while driving, but with “less consequences”.

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  • martina November 12, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I am a Speedbump victim: I live one street off a street with bump and now people speed through my street…
    How about the German model of play streets and dead-end street for cars in neighborhoods…

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  • Paul Johnson November 12, 2009 at 10:42 am

    That’s just what I want in my neighborhood: Artificially deficient pavement containing bumps causing minor earthquakes whenever a delivery truck or bus hits the bump.

    Screw speed bumps, their proponents, and their partisans. Speed cushions at least provide an out for extremely large vehicles and bicycles. Understand it’s not the commercial drivers or the bicycles that need to be slowed down.

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  • Paul Johnson November 12, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Blasting through stop signs and through neighborhoods, and then driving too slow on the freeway is known as “Driving While Californian,” and was rare here before the Californian Invasion of the 1990s.

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  • drew November 12, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Timtim and Jackattak,
    Yes, some way of enforcement needs to happen. The camera idea is a good one, in spite of it’s drawbacks. This is an easy way to improve street safety, and it generates revenue for the city. Why do they let all those citation dollars just fly on by???
    How about sting operations. Moving around the city from one hot spot to the next. Plainclothes cop with camera and radar gun. They would need wheelbarrows at city hall to take the money to the bank!!
    SE Foster needs a sting operation. Cop/pedestrian with a foot off the curb, waiting for traffic to yield. Dozens of cars could be cited in the first ten minutes, and word would get around fast.

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  • Steve B. November 12, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for this analysis, Jonathan. It’s valuable to understand how many steps are necessary just to stick a “0” or “2” on a few signs.

    Portland is at the head of the pack when it comes to traffic calming, and I think it will only improve. Changing speed limits should be part of the comprehensive strategy to calm our roads, including our arterials.

    Folks who love speed bumps: Did you know you can buy your own? If PBOT approves of speed bumps on your street, you can raise the money to have them installed. I think they’re about $1500 for a pair (you need to have 2 in order to be effective).

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  • Dave November 13, 2009 at 9:05 am

    How about diverting auto theft resources towards speeding enforcement–make the drivers of a city collectively deserve the protection of their property from thieves? Once speeding is reduced, then the police can indulge in the luxury of pursuing car thieves.

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  • Trafcard November 13, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Perhaps most interesting, telling, and depressing (all at the same time) is that ODOT hasn’t even bothered to chime in here. Normally when agencies are scrutinized on BikePortland with a legitimate question or concern, the agency jumps in to explain itself.

    Certainly that staggering process raises legitimate concerns about the nimbleness of ODOT, much less the question of why ODOT should even have a say (or in this case, a monopoly) on the speed of roads that aren’t even their own.

    But ODOT doesn’t even engage the citizenry. Wow.

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  • […] — even on roads managed by the City of Portland (for a primer on ODOT and speed limits, read this). With very different perspectives and priorities on traffic engineering, there’s a growing […]

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  • Richard March 5, 2010 at 9:49 am

    As someone who enjoys speeding down an open highway, even I admit there should be a zero tolerance for speeding in Neighborhoods (This coming from a Californian which you guy’s love to use as a scapegoat). I don’t think speed-bumps are the answer though, I would enjoy seeing more police patrols around residential areas. That would deter speeding, and help protect our children. How many times do you see people slowing down to 10mph or more under just because a cop in a “marked” cruiser is there. As for school zones, I may not favor speed limits on highways, but I’d wouldn’t mind seeing school zones limited to about 10-15mph!

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  • John July 24, 2010 at 12:12 am

    My observation is that cyclists are just as much offenders of the law. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been grazed or just about run over by a cyclist running lights while I’m crossing in a crosswalk with the signal. Let’s all obey the law. I’ll try not to jay-walk to make it safer for riders and drivers alike. PS. Please control your bike on the max. Your bikes can leave nasty bruises.

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