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Shaffer: Speeding imperils Raleigh's neighborhoods

hlynch@newsobserver.com

From the sidewalks around Brooks Avenue, Carla Osborne has witnessed the slow decline of civility – a botheration that screeches past daily in the form of speeding cars.

Once, a driver roared past her car in front of a northwest Raleigh preschool, crossing a double line.

Another time, a driver nearly flattened her daughter as she boarded the school bus, a calamity averted only when Osborne grabbed her child by the hood of her jacket.

Every Sunday at 11 a.m., a driver blows through the four-way stop on her corner along Lewis Farm Road, giving his horn three quick honks as a warning.

“You could set your clock by him,” Osborne said. “Raleigh’s not the sweet little town I remember when I moved here.”

All around the city, neighbors are railing against motorists whizzing down their otherwise tranquil, leafy streets – an issue inspiring shrill protests on a slew of online chat sites.

I looked around City Hall and the state Department of Transportation for some explanation or statistic, but I couldn’t find anything. So here’s my layman’s theory: With the Interstate 440 Beltline slowed by a multiyear surgery, and with a collection of new apartment complexes pouring cars onto once-empty streets, the hunger for shortcuts in Raleigh is turning back roads into commuter routes.

And it’s not just speed. From the scolding tone on the typical Raleigh listserv, it’s clear some people don’t understand how to behave at a four-way stop sign.

“How do you change the mindset of thousands of people who feel they are so important that the rules don’t apply?” Osborne asked her neighbors online.

How indeed?

Why not more stop signs? Because research tends to show that drivers speed up between them to make up for lost time.

Why not more police? Because cops can’t stop speeders unless they see it happen, and you can’t put an officer on every corner.

I learned this by diving into the guts of the city’s Neighborhood Traffic Management Program, which has existed since 2009. Since its inception, Raleigh has increasingly turned to humps, bumps, bulb-outs, circles and chicanes – better living through construction.

You’ve seen the humps on Lake Boone Trail, which used to make a speedy cut-through from Rex Hospital to Glenwood Avenue.

But getting one of these speed intrusions installed can be complicated, slow and wildly unpopular.

Streets, I learned, fall into a variety of categories.

Streets smaller than 31 feet likely fall into the neighborhood streetscape program, which focuses on a collection of localized main drags. The city ranks these according to priority, assigning each street a score based on the number of cars, the number of accidents, the frequency of pedestrians and the severity of the speeders.

You can look at this priority list online. Topping it right now is Hardimont Road with a score of 85.07, followed by Crest Road, Varsity Drive, Quail Ridge Road and Harps Mill Road.

All of these streets score the maximum of 50 in the speeding category. I’m boiling down the math a bit, but if your street scores a 50, that means that the cars in the 85th percentile are going at least 10 miles over the 35 mph speed limit.

But even if your street scores high, it still takes 75 percent of residents in the area to approve traffic calming. It doesn’t always happen. In one case, on Laurel Hills Road, residents endorsed traffic calming by a three-quarter majority only to see the plan halted. Tempers ran so high in that neighborhood that opponents of the projects alleged that signatures on the petition had been trumped up. The city dropped it.

Speeding often ranks low on a city’s list of social ills – so common that it’s impossible to wipe out completely, a problem that requires a death to get anyone’s attention.

But here’s a number from a think tank called the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing that grabs me: The impact of a crash on a human body rises the faster you’re going – by a third between 30 mph and 35 mph.

So if you hit a pedestrian with your car, you hit him 33 percent harder by going 5 mph faster. And just to illustrate the value of those 5 mph, let’s say you drive the 6.7 miles from Triangle Town Center to the Costco on Wake Forest Road at 35 mph rather than 30 mph.

By my math, you’ve saved a minute and 55 seconds.

Pondering that, let’s return to Osborne’s incident with the station wagon that nearly hit her daughter at the bus stop. The next day, Osborne flagged down the same woman, who drove off before she could protest.

“I gave her the stink eye,” she said. “Every time I saw her driving down our street.”

To learn more

For more information from the city of Raleigh on traffic calming and other topics related to speeding, visit bit.ly/1SursPU

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