Right Turns On Red

I’ve written before about the perils of pedestrianism in modern urban America.  Walkers really have to mind their Ps and Qs whenever they approach an intersection.  Cars rocketing through red lights, or trying to squeeze past pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk, or gliding into the crosswalk to make a rolling right turn on red, clearly aren’t thinking about us — at all — so we really need to look out for them.

no-turn-on-redjpg-8e01337c7948434eSo when I saw this article in the Washington Post about the District of Columbia’s evaluation of whether to end right turns on red, I read it with interest.  It’s been a really bad year for traffic accidents in our Nation’s Capital, with deadly crashes involving 12 pedestrians, three cyclists, and a person riding a scooter.  That’s a pretty shocking death toll, and it’s caused D.C. to reevaluate its policies — including allowing right turns on red at intersections — as part of an effort to cut down on car[people collisions.

Two points about the article were of interest to me.  The first is that right turns on red was primarily the result of a federal policy adopted in the ’70s, during the “energy crisis” days.  Right turns on red were viewed as a way to reduce oil and gas consumption, and federal policy was directed toward strongly incentivizing cities to allow that driving maneuver as an energy conservation measure.  And the second is that the impact — an uncomfortable word under these circumstances — of allowing right turns on red on the number of traffic accidents really doesn’t seem to be significant, as a statistical matter.  One early study, undertaken shortly after “right turn on red” was adopted as a policy, showed a big increase in crashes, but more recent studies, performed after drivers became used to the rules, indicate that the effect of right turn on red is negligible.

My personal pedestrian experience tells me that right turn on red is a perfectly safe maneuver — if drivers are paying attention and following the rules.  The problem is that some drivers don’t do that.  They roll directly into crosswalks and intersections, looking only to their left at oncoming traffic, without considering that there might be pedestrians entering the intersection — just as there are some drivers who routinely run through red lights.  I’m convinced that it’s not the policy, it’s the drivers who are a problem.

And for that reason I really question whether eliminating right turns on red would make a difference.  I routinely cross an intersection where right turns on red are not allowed.  That makes no difference to some of the drivers — they take a right turn on red anyway.  Unless our police are rededicated to enforcing basic traffic rules, which doesn’t seem to be a high priority for law enforcement right now, there’s not going to be a significant improvement in traffic safety, whether the policy changes or not.

Right turn on red or not, pedestrians just need to be wary.  It’s a hazardous world for walkers.

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A Bridge Too Far

Over in the Far East, they’ve just opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge.  Connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the bridge cost $20 billion and is 34 miles long.  It took nine years to build, involved the creation of artificial islands, dips into a tunnel under a busy harbor area, and is supposed to be designed to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions with oversized tankers.

551478a8-d1f0-11e8-81a4-d952f5356e85_1320x770_022145It’s an impressive engineering feat, no doubt — but when I read about the bridge I mostly felt relief that I wouldn’t have to drive across it.

I’m not a big fan of driving on those lengthy bridges that span bays or harbor or rivers.  The towering height over the water, the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being penned in as you cross, and the concern that you are putting yourself totally in the hands of approaching drivers who might be hedging toward the middle — or, even worse, trying to take a photo with their phone — combine to make a long bridge crossing an uncomfortable experience for me.  I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I cross.

I’m not alone in this.  Years ago, when Kish and I once traversed the colossal Chesapeake Bay bridge, we learned that some people simply could not bring themselves to drive across it — so many people, in fact, that there were drivers stationed at each end to help people make the trip.  Perhaps that’s at least part of the reason why most drivers won’t even have the opportunity to drive on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai span in their own cars; they’re required to park in Hong Kong and take a shuttle bus or a special hire car to cross the bridge.

If I ever have to cross this new, world’s longest sea-spanning bridge, I’d be happy to have somebody else do the driving.  A 34-mile-long bridge might be a bridge too far for me.

Red-Light Runners

I’m convinced the quality of driving, and drivers, in America is going steadily downhill, and our roads are becoming more dangerous.  The best evidence of that reality is found at any intersection in any American city with a traffic light.

factsheet-rlr-240x255If you take a moment to watch the traffic light at an intersection go through its signal progression and observe the actions of drivers in response — as I do every day on my walks to and from the office — you’ll immediately notice three things.  First, almost nobody stops when the light turns yellow.  Instead, the amber caution light now is viewed as an invitation to speed up, so that three or four or five more speeding cars can go careening through the intersection.  Second, at least one car, and sometimes two, will rip through the intersection on the red light, apparently banking on the hope that the cars on the crossing street, and any pedestrians trying to cross the street, won’t have moved into the intersection by then.  And third, cars turning right at the intersection don’t actually stop at the red light.  Instead, they’ll roll right into the crosswalk and move immediately into their turns, not stopping unless there’s a car approaching from the left.  It’s not the traffic signal, but instead the oncoming traffic, that affects their behavior.

This is a significant change from when I started driving, and you were trained to stop when the yellow light appeared.  If you took somebody fresh from a ’70s-era drivers’ education course and put them on a modern city street, they’d probably get rear-ended and cause a multi-car pileup because the drivers behind would be expecting them to speed up on yellow, just like everybody else seems to do.  And, of course, running a red light was a sure way to get a ticket in those days.   But now no police officers seem to be writing tickets for red-light runners, and efforts by cities to enforce the red-light rules through intersection camera set-ups has been mired in corruption claims and technological issues.  So people feel free to run the red lights, and probably will continue to do so until they get into an accident, hit a pedestrian or a cyclist, or get a ticket.

I wish city police departments would devote more resources to in-city enforcement of traffic laws so that as many officers are looking for urban red-light runners as are looking for speeders on the nation’s highways.  And who knows?  Maybe when the technological glitches get ironed out, self-driving cars will actually make the streets safer.  But right now, it’s dangerous out there, and it seems to be getting worse.

Test Of Patience

In the modern world, patience is most certainly not a virtue.  We expect everything immediately, and feel incredibly put upon in the absence of instantaneousness.  Whether it is service at a store, fast food at the drive-thru window, or a split-second response when we type in a search, we demand an instant response.  And don’t even mention the possibility of the spinning circle of delay on our computer screens!

But sometimes, extreme speed is just not an option.  Consider, for example, driving on a winding two-lane country road behind a rusting panel truck.  Your GPS told you that it would take 90 minutes to get somewhere, and with supreme self-confidence you determined that you could do a little bit better than that.  But you didn’t figure on being behind a truck driver who apparently is being paid by the hour, because he sure is taking his own sweet time about getting to wherever it is he’s going.  Doesn’t he realize that your time is hugely valuable?  Doesn’t he approach his job with the same sense of urgency and need for speed that you apply to everything you do?  Doesn’t he understand that you’ve got to get somewhere, and so does everybody else who is now stacked up behind his sorry, slow-moving, rusting ass?

So you fret, and rage, but there’s not much you can do about it, is there?  Sure, you could take a chance, blindly pass him against that solid yellow line, and hope that no car or truck is approaching on the other side at that same moment in time, but you’re not that hot-headed and reckless, and anyway there’s a pretty steady flow of traffic on that other side.  There are no passing lanes on this road, and you’re not getting the intermittent yellow line when there seems to be a lull in traffic, either.  So . . . there’s really nothing to do but accept the fact that you’re going to be moving at a ponderous pace for the foreseeable future.

You think that maybe there’s something on the radio,so you fiddle with the channel changer and find a song that you like and haven’t heard in a while.  Because you’re passing the scenery at a veritable snail’s pace you can take a good look at the houses and trees, and some of them are really very pretty. now that you mention it.  And there’s something simple and kind of enjoyable about driving at something other than breakneck speed, and just letting the car drip into the swales of the roadway and feeling it gripped by gravity as it banks into a gentle turn on the black asphalt.  It’s really not that bad.  And soon enough, the truck driver is turning off the road, and you realize you’re still right on time, and losing a few seconds or even a few minutes because of that slow-moving truck really wasn’t a big deal at all.

It’s not a bad lesson to learn anew, every once in a while.

 

Driving Forward In The Kingdom

It’s June of 2018.  And as of Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia are finally legally able to drive.

p06byymkIt’s astonishing when you think about it, but until yesterday the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had maintained a ban on women driving — the only one in the world.  It was one of the most visible elements of differential treatment of men and women in that country.  The decision to finally allow women to drive is part of an effort by the Saudis to liberalize and modernize their benighted internal policies, which have received a lot of international criticism over the years.  And, as is so frequently the case, the move also has an economic component.  The Saudi economy has taken a hit because of oil prices, and allowing women to drive is expected to increase the employment of women and allow them to make more of a contribution to the gross national product.

Not surprisingly, many Saudi women took to the streets in cars to celebrate their ability to do something that women the world over have taken for granted for more than a century.  “I feel free like a bird,” one woman said.  “The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” another one wrote.  And Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving on social media.

But let’s not get too excited about the loosening of repressive policies in Saudi Arabia, because a number of activists who strongly advocated for great women’s rights have been jailed and remain behind bars, even as the ban against women driving has been lifted.  Some believe that the jailing is intended to placate the ultra-conservative religious leaders who remain a significant force in the country, and also to send the message that only Saudi leaders — and not activists advocating for changes in Saudi policies — can produce reforms in the kingdom.

It’s a sign that, while lifting the ban on women driving is welcome, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go.  And it’s also a reminder that, in 2018, there are still a lot of repressive policies out there against women that still need to be addressed.

Setting The Right Speed Limit

The other day I was driving on a highway, tooling along on a clear and bright spring day during a non-rush hour period, when I came upon a little traffic snarl.  Road construction?  Rubber-necking past an accident site?  Nope.  It was somebody driving too slow in the passing lane, causing other cars in that lane to pile up behind him as he inched past the car in the slow lane.  Then people started to duck around the line of cars to see if they could pass by on the right.  Suddenly you had another illustration of my long-held view that the real problem on the highways is not your average speeders — that is, the people who routinely drive above the speed limit, as opposed to the drag racers or road ragers — but rather drivers who are driving too slow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Traffic engineering studies that substantiate this belief.   When traffic engineers review the speed limits on road, they invariably try to set the limit using the “85th percentile” method: that is, finding the number at which 85% of drivers drive at or below the posted speed limit and only 15% exceed it.  Why?  Because while most people drive at what they think is an appropriate speed given the prevailing conditions — a speed that often doesn’t conform to the posted limits — there is a core of people who actually faithfully obey the speed limits.  If the posted speed limits are set too low for the “I’ll drive at an appropriate speed” crowd, you’ve created a situation where there is a significant speed variance between that group and the speed driven by the faithful obeyers.

And that is the point of maximum roadway danger, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has concluded that “the potential for being involved in an accident is highest when traveling at speed much lower or much higher than the majority of motorists.”   As the article linked above notes, the 85th percentile approach is the traffic engineers’ method of threading the needle between the approaches of the appropriate speeders and the faithful obeyers:  “Traffic engineers believe that the 85th percentile speed is the ideal speed limit because it leads to the least variability between driving speeds and therefore safer roads. When the speed limit is correctly set at the 85th percentile speed, the minority of drivers that do conscientiously follow speed limits are no longer driving much slower than the speed of traffic.”

But here’s the rub:  setting speed limits to actually match the 85th percentile test would mean raising the speed limits on most American roads, because right now about 50 percent of drivers routinely exceed posted speed limits.  In short, the appropriate speeders are telling the traffic engineers that the posted limits are too low, so to get to the 85 percent figures engineers would need to increase the speed limits.  That move would be applauded by the majority of drivers, but lower speed limits are reflexively supported by safety advocates — and by towns that pad their budgets by issuing speeding tickets on the stretch of roadway that passes through the township limits.  Everybody who lives nearby knows where those speed traps are. but the out-of-towners get tagged with expensive tickets, pay them by mail, and help the town to hit its revenue projections.

Traffic issues are one of the great imponderables in modern society, where the experts say all of their data and experience points in one direction — raising speed limits — but political considerations work in the opposite direction and keep the limits below what most drivers would prefer.  On most roadways, that magic 85th percentile number remains a pipe dream that probably won’t be realized until the human factor is eliminated and we’re all being moved around by self-driving cars.

The Walker’s Wave

You’re walking down the street, minding your own business on a pretty spring morning.  When you reach an intersection where there are cars approaching that are getting ready to turn right into your path, so long as you’ve got the walk sign you can proceed directly into the intersection, knowing that you’ve got the right of way.  Right?

Well, that’s what the law says, but this is one of those instances where the law doesn’t really match up well with the practical realities of life.

920x920Commuters are our friends and neighbors, but things can change when they get behind the wheel, even in friendly Columbus, Ohio.  In their cars they’re in their own little cocoon of leather and steel, with the radio playing and other thoughts on their mind.  Many of the approaching drivers likely are stressed, potentially distracted, and eager to get to where they are going as fast as possible.  They’re not bad people, but often they seem to be focused on just about anything other than the possibility of walkers entering that intersection.

So after a few instances where drivers have abruptly turned into the intersection while I am in the crosswalk and cut me off because they think they can squeeze through before I fully make it across the street — and it can be a pretty harrowing experience when a massive SUV or oversized pick-up truck rolls by a foot or so in front of you — I’ve taken a new approach.  Now I try to look directly at the first approaching car in line, make eye contact with the driver, and give them a little wave to let them know that I’m there and I appreciate their forbearance while I walk through the intersection.  It’s the same kind of wave, for example, that you traditionally give if you’re in your car trying to change lanes and a Good Samaritan eases off and lets you move over.  

I think this “walker’s wave” serves two functions.  First, it reveals you to be a human being, and the little “thank you” wave seems like a friendly gesture in the hurly burly of the modern world.  Second, if you can get a return wave from the driver, you know for sure they’ve actually seen you and will let you pass — and maybe they will feel good about their forbearance and will keep an eye out for us walkers in the future.

These days, it can’t hurt to look for little opportunities to acknowledge our common humanity.