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December 12, 2023

Speed limit on Kelly Drive lowered to 25 mph in hopes of reducing crashes

Drivers regularly top 50 mph on the dangerous, winding road. So Philly officials are testing a lower top speed to see if motorists slow down

Transportation Kelly Drive
Kelly Drive Speeding Jon Tuleya/PhillyVoice

The new speed limit on Kelly Drive is 25 mph, down from 35 mph. Philadelphia officials are hoping to reduce speeding and lower the number of crashes on the dangerous road.

Motorists on Kelly Drive must now adhere to a 25 mph speed limit as they drive along the winding, scenic road beside the Schuylkill River. The reduced speed limit, down from 35 mph, is the latest effort to improve safety on one of Philadelphia's most dangerous roads.

The Streets Department and other city agencies have tried for years tried to curb speeding on Kelly Drive, where drivers frequently reach 50 mph or higher. The road is one of six corridors where reduced speeds are being tested by PennDOT and the city's Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability. Others include Cottman Avenue and Vine Street. 

Changes like this typically require legislation to be passed, but city officials said the goal of the program is to gather data on how drivers respond to the lowered speed limits. There will not be any changes to speed enforcement on Kelly Drive now that the speed limit is reduced. 

Kelly Drive is part of the city's Vision Zero High Injury Network, meaning it's among a small number of streets that account for 80% of Philly's traffic deaths and serious injuries. The most dangerous section of Kelly Drive is the four-mile stretch from the Falls Bridge to the intersection of Sedgley and Water Works drives.

There were 40 crashes caused by speeding on Kelly Drive from 2018 to 2022, city officials said, citing PennDOT data. There have been 28 since 2020, including 12 that resulted in deaths or serious injuries. 

In May 2021, three teenagers were killed when a driver lost control of her car and crashed into an SUV at the curve near North Ferry Drive. At the time, it was the fourth crash there in a 16-month span. A memorial for another fatal crash victim already had been displayed there.

This year, two cars have plunged into the Schuylkill River from Kelly Drive. In February, a person driving a stolen car lost control and went into the river near Fountain Green Drive. In April, another car drove into the river near the Columbia Bridge. In each case, no one was found when the cars were pulled from the river. Similar crashes have resulted in deaths and serious injuries over the years.

The danger of speeding cars careening off Kelly Drive is heightened by the number of pedestrians and cyclists who use the parallel trail that loops around the river.

A decade ago, the Streets Department installed a new traffic control system to monitor speeding cars and halt them by activating red lights. Roadway sensors determined the average speed of the 25,000 cars that used Kelly Drive each day was 54.8 mph. The sensors were removed after the city was told its technology was not compliant with federal regulations. 

The new program on Kelly Drive aims to use other sources to gather data on traffic volumes and speeds, yet there is still hope new sensors could be authorized. 

"We look forward to regulations updates that may allow the deployment of this strategy in the future," OTIS spokesperson Matthew Cassidy said. "There have been significant changes in travel patterns since 2020. This study will provide insight into the traffic volumes and speeds we're seeing today."

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia welcomed the speed limit reduction. Though it doesn't come with new speeding enforcement measures, the organization believes it will help slash top speeds.

"The thought behind this is something that other cities have attempted, and the idea is that it will bring down the highest speeders by adding additional signage," said Nicole Brunet, the Bicycle Coalition's policy director. "It's not going to totally fix the problem of speeding because the road is designed for people to drive faster, but we're excited to see how it helps with the very top of the bell-curve. We know that there's more that needs to be done to really reduce speeding."

In other cities that have tried reducing speed limits on dangerous roads, some studies have produced promising results. One study in Boston found drivers were 29.3% less likely to exceed 35 mph when the speed limit was lowered from 30 mph to 25 mph in certain areas, which were compared to a control group in Providence, Rhode Island. And in Seattle, another study found crashes involving injuries were 17% less likely when speed limits were lowered to 25 mph at a series of downtown roads. 

The lowered speed limit on Kelly Drive is one of several traffic calming measures the city has undertaken on its dangerous roads. On one stretch of Lincoln Drive in West Mount Airy, PennDOT and city officials are installing "speed tables" that force cars to slow down. They're also adding rumble strips in an effort to improve tire traction, among other measures.

Philly's rate of traffic fatalities — 7.4 per 100,000 residents — is much higher than those in other East Coast cities like New York City and Boston, according to the Vision Zero report released in October. The city's traffic fatality rate is closer to that of car-dependent Los Angeles, which has a rate of 7.45 deaths per 100,000 residents. 

Although total crashes and injuries declined by 34% last year, traffic deaths remained roughly flat at 124. That was up from 123 in 2021 and down from 152 in 2020, the deadliest year for traffic deaths since 169 peopled died in 1990. The Vision Zero report noted that speed was a factor in 22% of fatal and serious injury crashes in Philadelphia last year.

Some city residents are skeptical that dropping Kelly Drive's speed limit will make a significant difference. One person told FOX29 that going above the speed limit has become ingrained in the normal flow of traffic.

"If you drove 35 on here beforehand, you would have been a hazard for going slower than the flow of traffic," Jacques Samaha said.

Others suggested Kelly Drive may need red light cameras that work like the automated speeding enforcement program on Roosevelt Boulevard, where drivers are ticketed for going 11 mph or more above the limit. Since cameras were installed there in 2020, there have been significant reductions in crashes, traffic deaths and speeding violations, city officials said. To continue that program and expand it to other parts of the city, state lawmakers will need to pass legislation that's now under consideration in Harrisburg.

"If we do have an expanded automated speed enforcement, Kelly Drive is definitely on the top of the list because of the number of speed-related crashes and serious injuries and fatalities that have happened on that road," Brunet said.