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City defends reduction in speed limits

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By Shaina Stockton, Staff

In light of community backlash against the recent introduction and enforcement of new speed limits in Galax, city officials are publicly standing by the changes.
City Manager Keith Barker explained the reasons behind the decision to alter several speed limits in the area, including a reduced speed from 45 to 35 mph to the East Stuart Drive stretch and a reduction from 35 to 25 mph on West Stuart Drive.

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After a presentation was made to city council in May, members voted unanimously to move forward with recommendations made by the Traffic Safety Committee, which claimed that several speeds in the city were too high.
“While we cannot eliminate accidents entirely, the goal is simply to make the driving route through Galax safer for our citizens and visitors,” Barker said in an email to the Gazette on Tuesday.
Barker chose to speak out about the speed changes after they sparked outrage with many in the community. Just last week, an online petition to undo the changes began circulating on Facebook, gaining hundreds of signatures in a matter of days.
Comments throughout the petition alleged that the limits were lowered to create more “speed traps” for police to benefit from fines, and claimed that the clogged traffic from slow-moving vehicles would only create more accidents.
This, Barker assures, is far from the case.
He said the speed limit data was sought for an entirely different reason to begin with. The speed problems were initially discovered by the Traffic Safety Committee when it was tasked with looking at a request for allowing golf carts on the city streets earlier this year.
During this research, Barker explained that a number of inconsistencies were found in the city’s speed limits. “As the committee began to work on these items and the golf cart issues, they looked at traffic counts, where the speed limits are higher, causing accidents, congestion, etc.,” he said.
“There are limitations on where carts can travel based on speed limits, [and] restrictions on streets that can be crossed because of higher speed limits. These are all items called out in the Code of Virginia for consideration of a golf cart ordinance, but they brought to light some traffic issues that were worth considering in Galax.”
One of the problem areas that would later cause the biggest controversy was East Stuart Drive, a stretch of blacktop that Barker says “has long ranked as one of our most accident-prone streets in Galax.”
The potential risk increased when the committee considered the 20,000 cars that pass through the area daily, along with the number of entrances and exits, stop lights and side street entrances. “When you combine that with a 45 mph speed limit, it can create devastating collisions,” he said.
Barker also touched on a fact brought up by Police Chief Rick Clark during his address to city council in May: significant development has happened in this area of East Stuart since the speed limits were first put in place.
“Things have changed in the 30 to 40 years since East Stuart drive was changed from two lanes to four lanes,” Barker said. “We have seen a number of shopping centers develop; numerous restaurants and big box retailers locate along this route...
“When the original 45 mph speed limit was set, the vast majority of these businesses were not in place then,” he said.
The committee looked at the mapping, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Transportation, and made the recommendation to lower the speed limits based on these combined factors.
Issues on West Stuart Drive were also flagged, and the committee pointed out that it was the only residential area in the city with a 35 mph speed limit. To promote consistent speeds throughout the city limits, a recommendation was made to decrease the speed to 25 mph, said Barker.
Barker stressed that the intent of the lower speeds was never to increase the amount of tickets written by local police.
He gave examples from the city’s traffic offense reports in recent months. According to the numbers, police wrote 56 speeding tickets in June, which accounted for 26.9 percent of traffic offenses that month. In July, these numbers actually begin to drop, first to 11.1 percent, then easing back up to 17.6 percent in August.
“June ranks the highest in regards to summons for speeding, which is one-and-a-half months prior to the speed limit dropping. This was a grant funded extra enforcement period where the ‘Click It or Ticket’ [seat belt enforcement] campaign was in place,” he said.
Data does show speeding as the highest ticketed offense in the city for all three months, but Barker also pointed out that the citations for expired inspection stickers closely matched the number of speeding tickets written in July and August.
Addressing recent Gazette Readers’ Hotline and online petition comments about the slower speeds, Barker used math to illustrate how much extra time it really takes to travel the roads at the newer speeds.
“Putting the distance and speed to some simple math, the change in speed limit affected 10,800 linear feet of East Stuart Drive. It would take the average car 47 seconds longer to travel East Stuart Drive at 35 mph versus 45 mph.
“The same calculation for West Stuart Drive shows the additional travel time would be 28 seconds,” he said.
Barker offered a reminder of what the police department has managed to accomplish in recent years. “As Chief Clark noted in his discussion with council earlier this year, the number of accidents are at a 10-year low, primarily due to the high visibility of our police department,” he said.
In the face of opposition from the city’s residents, Barker said he stands by his belief that the city made the right choice.