Road Safety is Public Safety
By Jamin Pursell
Over the last century, the automobile has become a potent symbol of traditional Americana. The Ford assembly line brought the car to the American masses in 1913. At only $260 by 1925, the Model T was affordable, costing the average worker only a few months' wages. During that time, Prohibition created an industry for the American Bootlegger. Bootleggers drove vehicles called “stock cars” to distribute their illicit goods, making them small, fast vehicles to better evade the police. Drivers also modified vehicles for speed, handling, and increased cargo capacity. The early NASCAR drivers used those same cars in Daytona Beach.
In the years to follow, car culture was tied to a rugged, risk-taking, male American identity. From films like Rebel Without a Cause and Thunder Road, we got the archetypes of the classic car subculture. Route 66 reflected the evolution of road transportation in the U.S. by encouraging citizens to travel. It is no different now for young people. The car acts as a status symbol and part of one’s identity. Whether it's a Honda Accord or Dodge Charger, these cars attract young people and symbolize freedom.
The challenge to public officials is how to respond to the late-night commotion, damage the streets, and danger to both drivers and onlookers, caused by sideshows and other reckless driving behavior. We need engineered solutions. Luckily, some road safety tools have already proven effective in local Bay Area cities. While there are installation and minor maintenance costs, these instruments are permanently in place and don't require a police response. We should not hoist the responsibility of all public safety upon the police when there are more effective alternatives. We need to look at data-driven solutions.
Botts' Dots are round, raised pavement markers that can be installed in a grid to deter sideshows at intersections. The ceramic domes, originally installed by Caltrans to wake up sleepy drivers, would make sideshow activity highly unpleasant for drivers and potentially cause damage to vehicles, when driven over in the maneuvers sideshow drivers employ. Oakland, Concord, Martinez, Berkeley, and other cities have already implemented these on their streets. These deterrents work. Richmond would do well to follow the lead of other cities that have already tested their efficacy.
Roundabouts have been effective in slowing traffic since the 1960s. Traffic naturally moves more slowly through a roundabout than it does through a standard intersection, due to the diversion of the vehicle path at the entrance to the roundabout and the circular nature of the intersection. According to a study by the Insurance Institution for Highway Safety, there is a 75 percent reduction in injury collisions and a 90 percent reduction in fatality collisions where stop signs or signals are replaced with roundabouts. They also deter sideshows as they obstruct the ability to do many of the activities, while often beautifying neighborhoods when supplemented with native plantings.
As a community, we desire more livable spaces, including roads that better integrate pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and transit options along the corridors. Road diets, a roadway reconfiguration, offer several high-value improvements at a low cost when applied to a traditional four-lane road. The primary benefits of road diets include enhanced safety, mobility, and access for road users that accommodate a variety of transportation modes (for example, ambulances and fire trucks).
When a road diet is planned in conjunction with reconstruction or simple overlay projects, the safety and operational benefits are achieved essentially for the cost of restriping. When reconfiguring a road, we can also include curb extensions called bulb-outs which extend the sidewalk into the parking lane to narrow the roadway and provide additional pedestrian space at key locations—both at corners and mid-block. Curb extensions enhance pedestrian safety by increasing pedestrian visibility, shortening crossing distances, slowing turning vehicles, and visually narrowing the roadway.
These solutions call for increased economic investment in the short run, but they create long term benefits and are less expensive than throwing money at policing, which, more often than not, can only respond after the fact. These solutions will allow our Richmond Police Department to focus on crime rather than public nuisances that can be prevented altogether.