Deadly crashes prompt Boston City Council to explore citywide speed limit reductions

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City Council members said that they want to see more traffic calming infrastructure and look into new technology that can prevent speeding.

Flowers and toys left at the intersection of Congress and Sleeper streets near the Boston Children’s Museum where a 4-year-old girl, Gracie Gancheva, was struck by a vehicle and killed. David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

In response to multiple recent crashes involving pedestrians, including one that took the life of a young girl, Boston City Council members are taking a renewed look at changes that can be made to improve safety. This could include a push to decrease the speed limit citywide, add more traffic calming infrastructure, and examine if new technology can stop speeding. 

The topic was brought up in a hearing order put forth by Councilor Ed Flynn during Wednesday’s meeting

“I would like to see the [speed limit] be reduced even further in Boston. Twenty-five miles an hour is excessive, driving through a neighborhood, a dense neighborhood in Boston. I think it should be 20 miles an hour. I even think it should be 15 miles an hour. But driving 25 miles an hour in residential streets is unhealthy. It’s unsafe,” Flynn said. 

Last month, 4-year-old Gracie Gancheva was fatally struck by a pickup truck at a Fort Point intersection near the Boston Children’s Museum. On Tuesday, 57-year-old Fernando Pizarro died after a cement truck struck him as he moved through traffic in a wheelchair near South Boston. And on Thursday morning, a pedestrian suffered life-threatening injuries when they were struck by a truck near South Station, according to police. 

The area where Gancheva was struck had already been targeted by city officials for safety upgrades. After that incident, Flynn met with residents, city staff, and museum staff at the location to call for quicker, temporary safety improvements. 

Councilor John FitzGerald, who cosponsored the order, spoke about Gancheva’s death. 

“Especially the news of the 4-year-old child, I think of my own 4-year-old child and that’s the worst-nightmare scenario stuff. It’s something that goes through your head constantly as a parent,” he said. “The worst part about it is they’re so preventable.”

Boston lowered its default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph in 2017, according to the hearing order. Councilors at the time called for a decrease to 20 mph. 

Four pedestrians have died from crashes so far this year, Flynn said, and seven died last year. He highlighted other fatal crashes in recent years, including a 2018 incident where 2-year-old Colin McGrath was killed. Another young child, 4-year-old Ivan Pierre, died last year in a hit-and-run crash in Hyde Park.

Flynn took particular issue with concurrent traffic signals, where pedestrians are given a walk signal at a crosswalk while vehicles are given a green right-turn signal at the same time. He called this a “recipe for disaster.”

Under Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston introduced Vision Zero, an initiative with the goal of eliminating fatal and serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030. More must be done to realize this goal, Flynn said, including infrastructure improvements, implementing slower speed limits, and enhancing traffic enforcement. 

Mayor Michelle Wu announced the Safety Surge initiative last year. It is a push to add as many as 500 speed humps throughout Boston over three years to decrease traffic speeds in residential neighborhoods. Between 40 and 50 miles of “traffic-calmed” streets will be added each year, according to the administration. Officials also said that intersections would be redesigned and traffic signals improved as part of this push. Workers began installing the speed humps last fall. 

But the Safety Surge program only targets smaller side streets, according to the hearing order. High-traffic corridors are often the most dangerous places for pedestrians, and more traffic calming infrastructure is needed on these roads, Flynn said. Councilors will discuss the feasibility of expanding the Safety Surge program at an upcoming hearing. FitzGerald pushed for greater collaboration between the Wu administration and city councilors to identify which areas need improved infrastructure. 

Councilor Enrique Pepén said that officials should gain inspiration from Providence, where cameras at traffic lights are frequently used to issue tickets for speeding and running red lights. He called on state lawmakers to open the pathway for those measures in Boston. 

Flynn said that officials should explore whether or not it makes sense to test out new technology that detects when vehicles are speeding and takes measures to make it harder or even fully prevent them from going over the limit. 

Last year, following a particularly deadly multivehicle crash in Las Vegas, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended requiring intelligent speed assistance technology in all new cars. 

This technology, known as ISA, compares GPS data from a car with a database of posted speed limits. ISA systems can be passive or active. The passive ones warn drivers that their vehicle is exceeding speed limits through “visual, sound, or haptic alerts.” The driver is then responsible for slowing down. In active ISA systems, mechanisms within cars actually affect what a driver can do. Some active systems make it more difficult, but not impossible, for a driver to speed. Others “electronically limit the speed of the vehicle to fully prevent drivers from exceeding the speed limit,” according to the NTSB. 

“I’m no fan of ‘big brother,’ but there’s got to be a way, because we can’t recruit as many police as we need to do traffic enforcement, there’s got to be technology that can take that place. I’m losing faith in the drivers of Boston and the visitors that drive into Boston, so there’s got to be a measure taken, unfortunately, to counteract that,” FitzGerald said. 

The order received widespread support from council members, and it was referred to the planning, development, and transportation committee for a future hearing. 

The problem is not limited to Boston. These discussions came on the heels of an annual report from advocacy group WalkMassachusetts, released last week, that found that 20% of fatal motor vehicle crashes in the state in 2023 involved a pedestrian getting hit by a car.

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