Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When speeding is common, people die

By now you've heard the tragic headlines. A middle-aged woman accidentally drove her van off the side of the Bronx River Parkway yesterday, killing herself and everyone aboard - her parents, her sister, her daughter and two nieces. You may have also read statements by Robert Sinclair, president of the Automobile Club of New York, that the Parkway "lacks modern transportation engineering features" because it was conceived in 1907 and opened in 1925 as "the first limited access multilane highway in the U.S." He went on to complain about the guardrail: "It is very strange that there is a curb there," Sinclair said. "You don't put curbs on high-speed roadways because they can serve as launching pads, which appears to be what happened here. A big Honda Pilot flew over a 4-foot guardrail." The Wall Street Journal found that the State's "Five Percent Report" on the most dangerous roads claimed that the "section needs a 'deceleration lane' and other measures to improve the East 177th Street exit."

The fact that Sinclair finds it "very strange that there is a curb there" gives you a clue that he's talking out his ass, and that's probably where he found the "facts" that he solemnly delivered to the Associated Press. In contrast, Steve Anderson knows his shit, and on his site nycroads.com you can read that the entire Parkway south of the Sprain Brook Parkway was built between 1950 and 1952. While the section between Bronxville and Valhalla may well have "narrow lanes, steep hills, tight turns," the southern part has six lanes and is relatively straight and flat.

Being somewhat familiar with New York City's parkways, I saw that "curb" on Bing Maps and knew exactly what it was: a divider protecting a long-closed side path. In the early 1950s, Bob Moses was still building sidewalks and side paths along his parkways. It's very similar to the one on the Goethals Bridge, even though that was built much earlier under the Port Authority.

If you're wondering why anyone would walk on a narrow sidewalk separated from six lanes of speeding car traffic by a two-foot-high strip of concrete, you're not alone. That's why it was closed, and it probably wasn't very popular when it was open, even though it's the straightest route to get from Bronx Park to Soundview.

Sinclair doesn't think it's strange that the driver, Maria Gonzalez, was doing 68 in a 50mph zone. Neither does NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. The AP says, "Gonzalez was driving well above the posted 50 mph limit, but speeding is common at that point and she may have been simply keeping up with traffic, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne."

Of course, that's the problem. Gonzalez probably wasn't doing anything particularly unusual or reckless - beyond driving in the first place. If speeding is common, it's because the road design encourages it. It's a six-lane limited-access highway, but it has a 50mph speed limit, probably because it has no shoulders. But the drivers see six lanes, so they go fast.

So what do we do when the road gives drivers visual cues to go faster than it's really safe to go? Sinclair and the State DOT - and Borough President Ruben Diaz Junior - have only one answer: spend more money. Spend $232 million dollars to replace the bridge (as a link provided by the Journal News shows), raise the curbs, add shoulders and even a "FULLY ADA COMPLIANT SHARED-USE PATH." But for the section of the Parkway north of Bronxville, even Steve Anderson, who is usually not shy about spending other people's money on roads, actually recommends that the number of lanes be reduced to discourage speeding.

That's what we should do south of Bronxville too. This section of the road is redundant with the Thruway/Major Deegan and the Hutchinson River Parkway, and it doesn't even carry trucks. It does not need to be six lanes wide. If we believe Governor Cuomo that the State needs to rein in spending, we should definitely not waste money replacing and widening this bridge. But we do not have to compromise on safety. We can convert the outer lanes of this road to shoulders. This will add protection and reduce speeding, preventing at least some future deaths.

It might even make the road safe and pleasant enough that we could reopen the pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure and restore a needed link in the Bronx's non-motorized transportation network. We can also open the Parkway to buses, at least south of Pelham Parkway, to give people another alternative to driving.


Unknown said...

"Gonzalez was driving well above the posted 50 mph limit, but speeding is common at that point and she may have been simply keeping up with traffic."

This is an astonishing response to the speeding. And the answer is not to step up enforcement or to implement traffic calming, but to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the road so it can accommodate those speeds? How about we spend a fraction of that on speed cameras? That is if Albany says we're allowed. Sigh.

jazumah said...

Speed cameras? They will do the same thing as red light cameras, which is cause more accidents. Instruments need to be calibrated regularly and there are numerous cases where police have been caught with uncalibrated radar guns. How do you fight a ticket from an uncalibrated gun? The Hutch is the same way (65-70MPH) and so is I-95, but there is actually regular radar on both on the NYC sections.

Frankly, there is no need to change the highway. People need to pay attention when they are driving, particularly on a twisty road like the Bronx River. Too many people do not take driving seriously and while I am sorry seven people died, they died because of DRIVER ERROR. There are few infrastructure fixes that can compensate for driver error.

With the short acceleration lanes, buses would probably create more accidents there unless you turned one whole lane into an acc/dec or slow vehicle lane.

Unknown said...

I'm confused. You say speed cameras will "cause accidents". But the only way I can see that happening is because someone is speeding, sees there is a camera, and slams on their brakes, causing a rear-end collision. But then you insist that "people need to pay attention when driving". By that measure, it's the people not paying attention that causes the accident, not the speed camera.

Certainly, speed cameras (and red light cameras) need to be used properly by authorities. They should be seen as a safety instrument and not a revenue instrument.

Regardless of how we achieve it, greater road safety is an important goal and we should use both enforcement and design to achieve it. Simply saying "oh well, accidents happen, what can we do?" is a terrible approach that won't save any lives.

Alon said...

If speed cameras and instruments do not reduce accidents, why should buses increase accidents? In both cases it's a matter of driver errors and social learning. The only difference is that car drivers will keep causing accidents, whereas bus drivers can be trained not to.

jazumah said...

Buses accelerate differently than cars. The slowest road car can make 0-60 in around 12 seconds. It takes a bus between 25 and 30 seconds to do that. The shorter acceleration lanes on certain exits would force buses onto the main road at less than 20MPH. That is a terrible combination. I am generally a proponent of bus use of parkways, but the Bronx River would have to have an entrance restriction at certain spots.

Alex, all cameras make a certain portion of the driving public antsy. This breaks the flow of traffic. Things that break the flow of traffic tend to cause accidents. A lot of the lights with cameras have had their yellow time cut by half or more, giving vehicles no chance to clear the intersection. What trick will be done with the speed cameras.