Why We Drive the Way We Do

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By Eric C. Cohen

You know those drivers who weave from lane to lane on the Expressway while driving 85 mph? That’s nuts. Who knows why they drive like that? But, what about you and me…good folks who obey most of the rules most of the time? We’re also speeding. Not just on the Expressway, but right here where we live…Main Street, Glover Street, Jermain Avenue…pretty much everywhere.

Why do we speed? Sometimes we’re in a hurry…cars are made to go fast…it’s fun to drive fast…and driving the speed limit can be so annoying. You can probably think of a few other reasons. But what about those times you’re barely paying attention to your driving, yet end up cruising 15 or 20 miles per hour above the speed limit? What’s going on then?

Well, it’s not completely your fault. Sure, in an ideal world, you’d pay more attention and rein in your speed. But in reality you’re simply obeying the subliminal cues you receive from the way the road is designed.

When traffic engineers design a road, they’re mainly concerned with safety and efficiency. Efficiency because, above all else, roads are built to get us from here to there as quickly as possible. Safety because…well, that’s pretty obvious. Unfortunately, safety and efficiency rarely coexist well in road design. The traditional solution to this dichotomy has been to design roads that work well for moving traffic, and then add speed limits to try to make them safer.

Traffic engineers use a codified set of guidelines to determine the maximum safe speed for any given roadway, which becomes the posted speed limit. However, a road designed for efficiency tells us…”I’m wide, I’m straight, I’m smooth, there’s good visibility. You can go faster; no problem.” And, so you do. Your subconscious mind has analyzed the road conditions, and without actually making a decision to, you end up driving at a speed that “feels” right. But this actually puts you and those around you at risk.

And the risk is great. If a child were to appear in front of your car unexpectedly, you’d have a much better chance of stopping in time if you were going slower. What if you actually hit someone? The odds of a pedestrian surviving a collision with your car at 20 mph is quite good…95% do, whereas only 15% of victims survive an impact from a vehicle going 40 mph.

What about roads that have never been “engineered” at all? When our village streets were designed, nobody had any idea that controlling the speed of automobiles would someday be an important consideration. So, we’ve inherited roads that, in many places, encourage, rather than discourage speeding. Fortunately, by using a few simple, well-proven tools, we can change the perception that it’s okay to speed here. In fact, we’re already using many of those tools.

Almost no one speeds in Sag Harbor’s business district. Why? Because it’s obviously unsafe to do so. Head-in parking like we have on Main Street, where a driver might back out directly into your path at any moment, is very effective at making people drive cautiously. Main Street also has wide sidewalks and multiple crosswalks, both of which tell drivers that this area is made for pedestrians, so caution and slow speeds are required.

Route 114 is another road that employs design elements proven to signal drivers to slow down. Some sections have narrow driving lanes, or parking on both sides of the street. Sidewalks and bike lanes line both sides of the road. Crosswalks are textured to provide tactile feedback to drivers. And, the presence of many vertical lampposts and sidewalk trees provide excellent feedback to drivers as to how fast they are traveling. It’s not perfect, but by and large, it works.

State Route 114 is another road that employs design elements proven to signal drivers to slow down. Some sections have narrow driving lanes. Some sections have parking and/or sidewalks along both sides of the street. Crosswalks are textured to provide tactile feedback to drivers. And, the presence of many vertical lampposts and sidewalk trees provide excellent feedback to drivers as to how fast they are traveling. It’s not perfect, but by and large, It’s working.

These design elements are known as furniture and friction. Furniture—parked cars, lampposts, street trees, sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, curb extensions and the like—are used to create friction. Friction provides the subliminal cues that tell drivers to slow down. Unlike speed limits, friction actually works to reduce speeds and keep people safe.

There are many other places in the village where furniture and friction could easily be applied with excellent results. Two that come to mind are Main Street between Union Street and Otter Pond, and Jermain Avenue between Suffolk Street and the Turnpike. We have the tools to make the village safer; all that’s missing is the will to use them.

 

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