Outside the box


City officials demonstrated welcome flexibility this week in responding to citizen calls for stepped-up emphasis on traffic safety in local neighborhoods. When residents introduced the issue at  a City Commission meeting last month, there seemed to be a little reluctance to experiment with new strategies. But at Monday’s meeting, department heads expressed willingness to consider steps the public proposed to make residential areas safer for the people who live there.
Now it’s up to the commission to decide whether to approve an ordinance amendment lowering the speed limit on residential streets. The  public, meanwhile, must show the commission it’s really serious about keeping neighborhoods safe – even if stricter enforcement elicits a backlash from drivers who violate the law. City administrators said public support will be critical to making new policies successful.
Police Chief Walter Wilhoite believes reducing the speed limit from 35 mph to 25 mph in neighborhoods would help make the streets safer for motorists and residents alike. While driver inattention is often the biggest cause of accidents, lower speed allows more margin for error when motorists fail to concentrate on their task.
Public Works Director Jeff Hackbart, who last month had reservations about installing additional warning signs on neighborhood streets, said after checking with the Federal Highway Administration he now supports a policy that would base signage partly on neighborhood consensus. When special signs are requested – “Slow: Children at Play” for example – the city would send letters to residents closest to the locations where they are proposed to determine the level of support.
Traffic policy can’t be based solely on public opinion, however. In response to a recent request for a new stoplight on Schenkel Lane, Public Works is conducting a traffic count and speed survey. Hackbart explained these reviews will determine whether a new signal might produce the desired results.
Wilhoite, whose officers enforce speed limits and other traffic laws, said he favors getting neighborhoods involved in the decision making but admonished that those neighborhoods must accept the resulting “ramifications.” This seems fair. People who press for stricter traffic enforcement should try not to complain when more citations get written or new signals slow commuters.
It’s important to remember that wrecks don’t always result from driver negligence. Sometimes accidents just happen, despite everyone’s best efforts to prevent them. Safety-conscious residents are still justified in calling on local government to do what it takes to tilt the odds in their favor.
The most visible collisions, causing injury or death, usually occur on heavily traveled roads with higher posted speed limits. Police and traffic engineers necessarily put a high priority on these busy locations. And yet, a vehicle tooling through a residential area at the seemingly innocuous speed of  35 mph can easily become a deadly missile to children at play or adults puttering around the yard just feet from the pavement. People who live in neighborhoods deserve official attention no less than motorists zipping down the interstates at 70 mph.

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