VDOT recommends lowering speed limit on part of Richmond Highway

Traffic on Richmond Highway (via Fairfax County)

The speed limit on a 7-mile stretch of Richmond Highway should be lowered to 35 mph, the Virginia Department of Transportation says.

The road from Jeff Todd Way to the I-95/I-495 (Capital Beltway) interchange currently has a speed limit of 45 mph.

Announced at a virtual public information meeting on Wednesday night (July 20), the recommendation comes from a speed study that VDOT began nearly a year ago.

The study determined that lowering the speed on that 7.31-mile stretch of Richmond Highway was best practice considering the high crash rate, the amount of pedestrian activity, the number of bus stops, and signalized intersections that are currently along this corridor.

“Change in speed allows for longer perception and reaction time for drivers,” VDOT project manager Warren Hughes said. “We want to…change driver behavior. By changing driver behavior, it will enhance safety in the corridor.”

Richmond Highway Speed Limit Study recommendations (via Fairfax County)

As the study showed, crash rates were much higher on this section of Richmond Highway than the Northern Virginia and state averages for primary highways. On a particular 1.5-mile segment from Jeff Todd Way to Buckman Road, crash rates were 74% higher than the statewide average.

Just this month, two pedestrians were killed in separate crashes on the highway, which is also known as Route 1.

Officials noted that ample evidence suggests lowering speeds even a little saves lives, particularly when it comes to pedestrian-involved crashes.

“The impact of speed correlates to the chance of survival,” VDOT Northern Virginia District Traffic Engineer Gil Chlewicki said. “The lower the speed is when the vehicle hits the pedestrian, the better chance the pedestrian has to survive or less severe injuries. It decreases significantly, even with just five to 10 miles per hour.”

The study also looked at the three-quarter-mile section of Richmond Highway between Belvoir Road and Jeff Todd Way, but recommended keeping the current 45-mph speed limit there.

The public will have until Aug. 1 to provide comments on the study, which is expected to be finalized by late summer. The Board of Supervisors could accept the recommendation this fall. Then, new signs will be ordered, and the new speed limit will take effect in early 2023.

While most residents who commented at the public meeting agreed with lowering the speed, they questioned why it will take so long to actually institute the change.

“Speed kills, speed maims. Why does it take a year and a half or more before [this change is made]? How many more people will be killed in the interim?” asked Mike Doyle representing Fairfax Families for Safe Streets.

While sympathizing with Doyle, Hughes and Chlewicki said certain processes need to be followed to ensure lasting change. Plus, Richmond Highway is a large corridor, and there was a lot of data to comb through.

“This one took a little bit longer than other speed studies,” Chlewicki said. “Unfortunately, as quick as possible doesn’t mean as quickly as we hope.”

Community members also commented on the impact lowering the speed limit might have on vehicle travel on the already often-congested road. VDOT officials asserted that, according to their research, the change will have a “minimal” impact on traffic.

VDOT made clear that the speed limit reduction is related to current conditions, not the future of Richmond Highway, which is set to be transformed with added lanes, a rapid bus service, and new development.

The study also only focused on speed, as opposed to other changes that could improve safety, including more crosswalks, medians, traffic signals, and protected sidewalks.

Other changes related to speed and road conditions could take place as Richmond Highway further evolves, VDOT officials said.

“Richmond Highway is now more of a suburban facility, with higher speeds and more traffic,” Hughes said. “With the changes in the corridor, we do expect it to become more urban over time…There will be an opportunity in the future to make more changes.”