The City Commission contemplated the limits of its authority last week after hearing calls for a traffic-safety campaign in response to recent accidents in neighborhoods; one killed a 6-year-old boy riding a bicycle near his home in Silver Lake subdivision. There are steps the city can take and some it probably should avoid.
It’s important to emphasize that no official blame has been placed for the April 14 accident that took Charles Semones’ life when a car hit his bicycle. From all indications, city police Maj. Fred Deaton said, “it was just a horrible accident.” Later, three city residents appeared before the commission to suggest new signage and lower speed limits as ways to enhance safety in neighborhoods.
Accidents happen everywhere, but when tragedy visits places of residence, it hits home with people who like to think of their neighborhoods as havens where residents can live in peace and children can play in reasonable safety. They have a right to expect local leaders and law enforcement to uphold this ideal.
What can and should government do? Police Chief Walter Wilhoite was probably gratified to hear citizens speaking up for tougher speed limits, but he’s been around long enough to know that traffic enforcement is a double-edged sword. Safety concerns raise support for crackdowns on violators. Then there’s a backlash from drivers who complain police are operating a “speed trap” and writing citations to meet quotas established by departmental leadership. Public safety officials get it from both sides.
Signs to promote traffic safety also draw mixed reactions. When a Jackson Drive resident told the commission she wanted a “Deaf Child at Play” sign alerting motorists to the difficulty her daughter has hearing vehicles, Public Works Director Jeff Hackbart responded that his department adheres to a “Uniform Traffic Control Devices” manual that establishes consistent standards for street signs nationwide. It’s no accident that signs in one town look much like the signs in other towns.
The rules are not without reason. As Hackbart pointed out, a sign that warns of “children at play” does not set a specific speed limit and therefore is not enforceable. Too much signage could backfire, becoming a distraction that itself poses a traffic hazard. It’s understandable that city officials want some guidelines to govern the erection of signs around town.
Neither the public nor politicians should abdicate responsibility in such matters, however. People can justifiably insist on extra protection even when transportation experts recommend otherwise. It happened in the early 1970s when residents of Collins Lane, in West Frankfort, complained about the parade of traffic using their quiet residential street as a shortcut to Franklin Square, the shopping center then under construction on nearby U.S. 127. They called for stop signs to slow the speeders and encourage drivers to choose an alternate route. Engineers recommended against that idea and, in a fit of professional petulance, proposed clear-cutting the shade trees on Collins Lane to achieve a more efficient thoroughfare. The trees stayed, the stop signs went up and the traffic-control strategy seems to be working, 40 years later.
Safety isn’t just for drivers and passengers. When roads go through neighborhoods, as they must, government has an obligation to respect the legitimate interests of people who live there, too.