“What started as an exercise in modifying my own behavior has become an interesting social experiment in watching other drivers react.”
— Leslie Carlson
It’s a major source of frustration that so much time and money is spent trying to make roads safer, yet we could make major progress by simply slowing down.
Make no mistake about it; speed kills (and hurts and maims and terrorizes). We’d be well on our way to Vision Zero if people always drove the speed limit.
When I heard that Portlander Leslie Carlson was making a concerted effort to drive the speed limit, my interest was piqued. I know from experience that driving at reasonable, safe speeds can often upset the norm of insanity and selfishness that prevails streets these days.
I emailed Leslie to learn more her efforts…
What exactly are you doing?
Last year, I started to pay careful attention to the safety of my driving, particularly the speed I was moving. I’ve been working to ensure that I stay under or at the speed limit in my car at all times.
My family primarily gets around on bikes or riding transit, so we’re all aware of how vulnerable we are on two wheels and on foot. And, as people have begun to drive more over the last few years–and there are more cars on the road–it feels less safe for my family to be riding our bikes or walking, even though we’ve done so for years. I’ve been a part of that problem in the past, driving over the speed limit, because I wasn’t paying enough attention or I was mimicking the speed of other drivers. Even though I’m only in my car one or two times a week, I wanted to be a part of the solution, modeling safe driving behavior.
What have reactions been so far?
“I thought I would see a pedestrian killed in that moment.”
Strangely, what started as an exercise in modifying my own behavior has also become an interesting social experiment in watching other drivers react. Every time I’m out in my car at least one driver reacts noticeably to my speed. For example, I’ve become used to having someone 7-10 feet off my bumper at all times. I think that’s the driver trying to will me to go faster, though it doesn’t work. Every couple weeks I get more extreme behavior, like the driver who didn’t like me staying at 25 mph on Lower Division. He pulled aggressively into the oncoming traffic lane at the intersection of SE Division and 34th Avenue and passed me at high speed–maybe 45 to 50 mph in my estimation. I thought I would see a pedestrian killed in that moment. On higher speed roads like N. Lombard of I-84, the tailing/passing/speeding behavior tends to get worse. All in all, I find myself pretty frightened watching driver behavior on at least a weekly basis.
Anyone else doing it with you?
My husband’s a bus driver for TriMet, so he’s already really careful about driving. He rarely if ever speeds. Though I think that’s his training and not him reacting to me. I have heard from a few friends that they are trying it–one reached out to me on social media after a driver passed her very unsafely on E. Burnside.
Any advice for others?
Don’t react if drivers are aggressive. It’s not worth the confrontation. Just keep doing what you are doing and know that it’s the safer choice.
Do you think it’s helping?
I doubt it. Most people are speeding most of the time. It would take more of us to make a difference, I think. What I’m doing is not a solution to unsafe driving. We need better infrastructure, fair enforcement and culture change across the region to eliminate deaths and injuries on our roads. We’ve got to work on systems change for that.
Will you persist? For how long?
Now that I’ve started to pay attention to speed, I don’t know if I could go back to ignoring it! And, if we’re ever going to get speeds down and reach Vision Zero, someone’s going to have to model that behavior. I plan to stick with it.
Leslie (on Twitter @QueenLeslie1982) is Co-founder of Brink Communications and is also a member of The Street Trust Board of Directors and Metro’s Transportation Funding Task Force.
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She sounds a lot like the smoker who quits and now spends their time trying to force others to do the same.
Smoking is legal.
Driving the speed limit is legal.
Yes, we’re making the same point. She’s doing something legal, and wanting others to stop doing something illegal. That’s much different than a former smoker wanting (let alone “forcing”) smokers to stop their legal smoking.
Similarly to drivers being unhappy with people driving at the speed limit, many get unhappy if you don’t turn right on red, even if they can’t see the oncoming traffic or people in crosswalks that prevent you from turning. It’s a reason I’d welcome many more “no turn on red” intersections. Although some people still honk if you don’t turn on red on those….
My least favorite driving rule is the recent one regarding holding up traffic when driving on the freeway in the left (“fast”) lane. It’s a fine rule for uncrowded, rural freeways. In the city, the problem isn’t slow traffic in the fast lane (since traffic is too congested to even approach the speed limit) it’s aggressive driving. Nothing could have been worse than passing a law that so many people interpret as “I want to drive 75 mph, and if you don’t get out of my way, you’re breaking the law, so it’s my right and even my duty to ride on your tail to force you out of my way”. People carry that attitude onto the city streets, thanks to that misguided law.
That’s a good point, q. And if you’re driving faster in the left lane, but not fast enough!, you still get tailgated and harassed. Only to get to the next traffic congestion faster…
Maybe I’m a passive-aggressive jackass when I drive, but I enjoy frustrating others by driving the limit. My biggest fear is that it may lead to someone passing me in the right lane (Hawthorne comes to mind) at a high rate of speed and hitting someone. So many people just aren’t emotionally capable of handling the privilege of driving.
“Left lane is fast lane” is _only_ for freeways and highways, despite frequent hothead behavior. On surface streets, lane choice is to safely set up your next turn.
As evidence, consider Senate Bill 532, Oregon’s “left lane passing” bill that would have modified ORS 811.325. It specified that it was to apply only to roads with a speed limit of at least 55 mph. See https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2017R1/Downloads/MeasureDocument/SB532
Also see ORS 811.315 2b: https://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/811.315
The left lane is the passing lane. Calling it a fast lane reflects the entitlement.
Are you claiming that the left lane is _reserved as_ a passing lane on city streets (not freeways and highways)? If so, don’t just make a dogmatic assertion. Please cite a source in the Oregon Revised Statutes (the state laws).
Absolutely! I blame Don Henley and Glenn Frey for proliferating that absurd convention.
I would like to see how many people have ever been cited for that, I legitimately think it is zero. I imagine the few cases would be an RV towing a trailer in the left lane doing 45 between Portland and Salem.
I don’t think that charge would ever stand in court on 26 out to Hillsboro or 84 in Portland proper on a weekday. Maybe, huge maybe, on a weekend but even then I don’t think it would be enforced or not argued down in court.
I agree people are probably not charged often with it. I can instances (like your example) where it would be legitimate. But the law has a real downside in creating a situation where the people who are the real problem–speeders and aggressive drivers–now feel the problem isn’t them, it’s the people in their way.
Oh, please do explain how she is forcing anyone to do anything by driving the speed limit.
I think she sounds like someone who recognizes that driving is a social activity and that her behavior can influence others. The more folks driving the speed limit will put social pressure on others to also drive the limit. Portlanders do not like to be outliers, it seems.
Thanks for answering my questions Leslie. I’m so glad you’re doing this. I think more people should give it a try. Strength in numbers!
I find it easier to not speed in my stick shift vehicle than the one with the automatic. 30MPH is too high in 3rd, 20 MPH is too low in 3rd, so I just go 25 in those 25 and 20 zones unless a lower year is needed. Yes, I know 25 in a 20 is still speeding, but I figure at least I am trying. This also works when going 35 in 4th and not shifting to 5th to go 40 or higher.
“I find it easier to not speed in my stick shift vehicle than the one with the automatic.”
Actually it sounds like you find it impossible to NOT speed.
If 3rd gear is to high for 20, why not shift to 2nd?
This is awesome. Parallels my own experience – there’s a lot of people who get angry if you’re not breaking the speed law. It’s kind of amazing.
And JeffS, it’s kind of like that – except that the main (but not only) people endangered by speeding are other people, and the main (but not only) person endangered by smoking is yourself.
Roughly one-third of traffic crashes are speed related.
“Parallels my own experience – there’s a lot of people who get angry if you’re not breaking the speed law.”
And in the next breath, complain about those law breaking cyclists…
Yep. I’ve often observed aloud that many Portlanders do not appreciate my keen ability to drive the speed limit.
When I drive my car going 20mph (the speed limit) on NE Ainsworth in my car, I get a big line of other drivers also going 20, but they deal with it. When I do the same thing on my Electric Bike, it feels like people’s heads are going to explode.
Word. Same thing happens on a non-electric bike, even if I’m speeding. I can be going 25 – 30 in a 25 zone (you know, downhill…) and drivers will be climbing my rear wheel. Do it in my car and it’s NBD.
My experience too-funny, innit?
Drivers do the same to me on NE Ainsworth regardless of whether I’m driving my car or riding my bike. It’s a neighborhood street with a 20 MPH speed limit and drivers want to recklessly fly at 40 MPH. Makes me want to scream.
At least it gets better west of MLK along my usual commute along Peninsula Park.
Just the other day I was driving the speed limit on one of Portland’s beloved 20 MPH streets; I was passed by 2 electric bikes and a third bicycle. It was even a narrow street and they passed on the left.
Where does that level out for everyone?
Sure you were. Seems very likely. I pass other cyclists every day on my commute while only averaging 15 mph and topping out at 25 going downhill and rarely get passed but you were passed by 3 cyclists just the other day in your car going 20 mph. Happens all the time to you right? Those scofflaw cyclists endangering everyone. Sure they don’t actually seriously injure or kill anyone but they’re totally the problem cause you remember this one time you saw 3 of them do something stupid.
Even if what you described really happened as you described, which seems unlikely, did their actions put you or anyone else in danger? Do you ever notice all the drivers around you that do much more dangerous things? Has it ever occurred to you that almost all of the traffic laws and traffic controls are in place because cars are dangerous not bicycles?
If JeffP was a woman, what you just did would be “mansplaining”.
Interesting [and somewhat expected response]; I actually got passed on the left on a 35 mph street by a scooter rider several weeks ago and watched as he passed another car in front of me several blocks later. Also had motorcyclists pass on the right using bike lanes. As noted in the original story, have been passed by automobiles on the left on two-lanes roads as well under all sorts of moderate/slow speed roadways.
Ultimately, we are just the same people trying to get to the same places. Somebody else deems/dictates level of danger – hence, the laws.
So now it’s scooters going over 35 mph? I hope you mean like a Vespa cause I don’t think those rented electric ones can get much above 20 and they’re supposed to be capped at 15. I’d really be interested to drive around with you because you encounter road users I never see on my daily commutes.
Who is this person that dictates how much more dangerous a car is then a bicycle? I always thought it was physics. Something about mass and inertia translating to force. Are cars only killing people because someone dictated how dangerous they are? I really don’t understand what you mean by that. It’s pretty clear to me the laws were created to attempt to reign in the destructive potential cars have and wouldn’t exist without them. It’s also clear that even if bicycle, scooter and motorcycle riders are all acting as dangerous as you propose they still must not pose much of a threat because they almost never kill or seriously injure anyone especially compared to the numbers car drivers kill and injure.
Yay Leslie! I would also add that going extremely slow in freeway congestion actually ‘unblocks’ fully stopped traffic. Let people merge in front of you in a super slow roll, this keeps all traffic moving moving behind you and effectively unlocks congestion. Counter intuitive. Let the speeders merge then stop ahead of you. They dont get very far. But then everybody stays moving slow behind you and we all get through a little faster. Be a lead slow car next to a big semi and unblock congestion with a slow roll.
Driving within the speed limit! Just one of many ways in which I strive to be like Leslie Carlson!
I drive the speed limit, too, where I live in northern New Jersey, and it is not nearly as difficult as many people may believe. I would say once a year somebody who is behind me honks at me or flashes their lights, but no more than that.
I am in Leslie’s camp, I travel at or below the speed limit whenever I am driving my car. To ensure I stick to the speed limit, when I am on a road with little/no traffic, an interstate or any time I think I might be likely to speed up, I use my cruise control to set the speed to the speed limit (I still have to pay attention to traffic). In addition, when traveling on a road with two or more lanes in my direction, I stick to the right hand lane. I was driving on I-205 S yesterday morning, when a Freightliner semi was right on my tail until he got into the middle lane and passed me. There have been other occasions when truck drivers have flashed their lights to try to persuade me to speed up, to no avail. Truck drivers in particular should be obeying the speed limit.
Our family only began riding bikes a couple years ago when I decided to give commuting from east of NE 122nd into SW 2nd and Oak a try and it stuck. There were many ramifications of that decision, one of which was a shift in my driving behavior. I use to be a fairly aggressive driver that floated the line between an unreasonable speed on and off the freeway but getting out of my vehicle and really experiences cars whiz by making questionable decisions changes your perceptions about the safety of it all. Being a cyclist has truly made me OK with going slower and focusing on everything moving around me, in many ways because I no longer identify with car culture and the culture of cars is fast, aggressive, and owning the road.
As far as helping goes I think it’s a step in the right direction. Making those around you aware that their dangerous driving in most cases isn’t doing them any good can actually change their behavior. It’s easier for them to hear from a friend or family member in a non-confrontational manner then from the person they put in danger or on rare occasions a traffic officer.
I think most people are like how Leslie was part of the problem because they’re not paying attention. Not just to their speed but also to if their manor of driving is actually benefiting them in any measurable way. Everyday I count the seconds people gain by passing me just to turn a bit earlier or slam on their brakes a little sooner. I can’t imagine it’s doing them much good but they’re certainly not going to like it if I point that out to them. Maybe their passengers can start helping.
I’ve been doing this for about five years, and I’ve definitely noticed a steady increase in others doing it too.
This is excellent. Cheers, Leslie!
I’ve been doing this for years. It’s often difficult to ignore the hostility of others who want me to go 5 mph faster. Its is safer, saves gas, saves wear & tear, and promotes calmness.
We’re teaching our son to drive. We make him obey the speed limit everywhere. At this point, he’s been honked, sped around, tailgated, you name it. There may be a 20 mph speed limit in residential ares, but people sure aren’t following it.
Thanks for being a responsible driver! The speed limits need to be lowered again, knowing that most folks are going to go 5-10 miles per hour over it anyway. From 20 down to 15 for residential areas. Plant more trees, narrow multi lane streets and add more traffic calming features. Either that or start executing those speed limits somehow.
There’s a lot in the world we can’t change, but we can start with ourselves, our street, our neighborhood and build from there. Thank you Leslie!
A few years ago I asked Rep. Blumenauer to declare a National Drive the Speed Limit Day. Didn’t hear back ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. We can start our own, though. It can be… every day!
Yes! I gave a friend a ride last week and felt like he noticed how slow I was going (um, the speed limit) and I joked that I was single-handedly trying to reduce speeds in the Portland metro area. Is great to know I’m not the only one!
The fact that nobody drives the speed limit unless consciously working to drive the limit is an indictment of engineering. The street environment should be providing clues to how fast is safe, but for years we have been building streets as if they are freeways and people are treating them like freeways. We need more street furniture that narrows the lanes and visually obstructs the street so that drivers are forced to drive more slowly. This is not particular to PDX but is the general condition everywhere.
I believe that part of the issue with speeding is how people interpret the signage itself. There seems to be a perception that the “speed limit” is the speed that should be driven. However, the key word on the sign is “limit”, which essentially means maximum. I have often wondered if people would act differently if the signs said “maximum speed” instead of “speed limit”. There certainly is a precedent for a “maximum” as there are already signs that say “minimum speed”.
I’ve had multiple conversations with people who are complaining about other people obeying the speed limit. I point out to them that limit does not mean minimum, it does not mean average, but it does mean maximum. Their response is typically, “…but, but, but…they are going slow, they are making me crazy, they are holding me up”, to which I simply say that is their problem since the person they are complaining about is acting lawfully.
Of course, I have little faith that if the signs were changed to say “maximum speed” that it would actually result in less speeding.
On the rare occasions that I drive these days, one of my joys is watching the reactions of motorists behind me who have never driven at (or slightly below) the posted speed limit before.
Gee, it’s almost like we allow people to drive if they can only answer 70% of the easiest questions correctly, give them three tries to pass and then never retest them again for as long as they can fog a mirror. Add in essentially no enforcement and the near-impossibility of losing one’s license and it’s a predictably deadly free-for-all out there.
Try installing a fake camera with a blinking red light behind your rear window. That may reduce the tailgating and bad behavior.
I started doing this after living and driving/biking in a totally toxic transportation environment. It felt like everyone is gaming the system and then taking punative action on the road at the slightest provocation. I made a decision not to get wrapped up in that. People can break the law all they want, but I refuse to get emotional on the road.
I, too, always drive the speed limit, and it infuriates most other drivers. It helps to be in a bigger vehicle.
Our new teen driver as well is really good at only going the limit or slower. And it’s even more scary the aggressive response he receives while driving, because he’s trying SO HARD to do the right/legal thing all the time and he gets this horrible feedback when he does. FWIW, I’m also part of the speed limit club (that slow line of cars you see on Willamette once a month is led by me :)).
I didn’t even realize that I’ve been setting a hot new trend for the last decade. I credit this blog for helping me get out of my car and discover just how dangerous driving is.
I’ve seen all the negative aggressive driving in response. I’ve been passed in lots and lots of unsafe manners by frustrated drivers.
I’ll set my speed at the speed limit if it’s clear and sunny, but anything other than that and I’m going to be going even slower. I’m always going at least 5 under if it’s dark and/or raining. Like it’s been said, it’s a maximum so I reduce my speed from there depending on conditions.
Taking the lane while riding a bike has allowed me to learn how to tune out drivers behind me that are frustrated that they can’t go faster. Not my problem.
What IS a problem is the law. If I’m going 24 MPH is a 25 MPH zone then I’m required to pull over. I break this law all the time. I never pull over because I’m delaying traffic by 2 or 3 MPH. And I never pull over on a neighborhood greenway while biking. ORS 811.425 be damned!
811.425 refers exclusively to ‘drivers’.
I don’t think that’s correct. It refers to drivers of a “vehicle.” And “vehicle” is broadly defined in ORS 801.590 to include non-motorized vehicles.
But note that ORS 811.425 only applies when the overtaking vehicle is NOT speeding.
About ten years ago, The Oregonian newspaper reported that speed limit compliance on Oregon highways was 30%. As cars have improved and now provide more confidence for drivers, I would imagine that speed limit compliance has worsened further since 2010. At a time where tolling freeway driving is being contemplated, I suggest that issuing speeding tickets could be a source of needed revenue, while increasing highway safety by providing a disincentive to the norm of speeding.
You should do a thing on the other side of this spectrum. That is the culture forcing people to drive. Found this little gem today on hacker news. https://twitter.com/JaysonElliot/status/1219861955256541187
Riding my ebike yesterday, doing 20mph southbound on SE 43rd yesterday and a driver HAD to pass me even though the street is 20mph, and is also a school zone. Passed me and continued driving in the wrong lane to turn left into . . . you guessed it . . . the school parking lot.
I love doing the speed limit in my car. Although I disagree with Leslie; it DOES help. When I do 25mph on SE Stark in the 30s, 20s, and teens, all those drivers stuck behind me would otherwise certainly be speeding are now not speeding.
Leslie only exceeds the 20 mph limit on her cross bike. 🙂
RE: above comments, I’ve also been surprised that driving the limit on Woodstock seems to be acceptable (though I get tailgating). But biking the limit? I’ve been spat at, yelled at, people pull around me HARD on the RIGHT, etc.
And this is only for a 10 block or so stretch of Woodstock. Yes, I ride in the middle of the lane, but it’s the only damn safe space on that road now, and besides, it’s frickin’ 20 MPH. Am I really slowing you down that much?
Now let’s talk about Cesar Chavez …. supposedly 25mph going south from Woodstock, residential on all sides, and the typical speeds exceed 35.
All drivers should understand: they’re gonna get to their destination faster in a car than if they were on a bike or bus so WHAT’S THE RUSH. Yielding for a pedestrian or bike costs like 5-10 seconds in travel time. If anyone’s in a rush cause they’re late that’s on them. Folks behind the wheel just need to chill out and slow down.
I appreciate the comments about patience…but I can absolutely get some areas faster in my car then on my bike.
AVs will drive at/under the limit. People should get used to it.
The sad thing is that someone driving the speed limit is legitimately newsworthy.
I could see this as an Onion article, “Portland Woman Routinely Obeys Speed Limits”.
It all boils down to one’s level of patience.
To clarify for you – yes, the Vespa type. I don’t experience the kick scooters often.
Maybe I’m just lucky to pay witness to all that is human with my commutes! Or perhaps, I pay attention to a lot more around me. Either way – just observation and request for thoughts….like mentioned, I’m just another cog trying to get to a destination be it by foot, bike, or car.
Oh I understand now that makes more sense. I get that people will make unnecessary and unsafe passes on all vehicle types but it’s just the ones in cars that put me in significant physical danger. So it’s less important to me when it’s done by people using other vehicles. I probably pay too much attention and fixate on it to the detriment of enjoying my ride. Yesterday I was passed by 3 people on the way home. 1 truck so it could get to a stop sign faster to make a right turn and wait at a stop light sooner. 1 SUV that almost hit a man carrying a baby car seat he was carrying out to his car no baby in the car seat. They got to a stop sign a few seconds sooner. The last was a person on a bike when we were going up a hill. Only the first two were of any concern to me.
I get that you’re just another cog I was just responding to your question and found it remarkable that you would be passed by 3 bicycles go over 20 mph when I almost never get passed by 1 going at those speeds.
There’s a national program that advocates exactly what Leslie is doing – Pace Car. It’s in 60+ cities. I first heard about it years ago when I saw a bumpersticker on a car that said something like, “PACE CAR, Follow me, I drive the speed limit”
Wow, San Leandro has a pace car program? That’s a city with the distinct possibility of being shot at for pissing off the wrong element.
Portland (or Santa Cruz) is someplace you can get away with pissing off impatient drivers by obeying the law, but in crowded California cities people get downright aggressive. I live off a 25 MPH traffic calmed road and get tailgated, flipped off, honked at, and even passed illegally in front of a school (have been passed on the right where the bike lane and buffer is too).
A few years ago on a quiet Saturday morning as I was being tailgated doing 30 in a 35 with a guy standing on the horn, he finally passed me on the right, then he swerved into me! I think he thought I’d be watching him and react, and he confirmed that theory after we stopped to assess the damage – he said I was “playing games” by driving so slow, even after I explained I was looking for a left turn I thought was immediately around the corner (and it was when I flipped my blinker on that he passed me). Had no explanation when I asked him why he swerved into my lane to hit me when I was maintaining my lane, let alone why he felt it necessary to tailgate me laying on the horn when the road opened into two lanes and I stayed in the left.
After an hour we agreed it didn’t make sense to keep waiting for the cops for such a little thing. I’m still bothered by the dent in my car, but his was much worse… and it was his wife’s.