EDITORIAL: Why not go slower?

SEEN ANY DRIVERLESS CARS LATELY? The few real ones, with computers controlling all their functions, are only test models. They’re a scary concept. But are they really any worse than an oncoming driver whose vehicle may be on state Route 203 but whose attention has drifted to Planet Facebook?

The section of the two-lane Route 203 that meanders between Valatie and Chatham could pose problems for a driverless vehicle. In order to negotiate the road’s sharp turns and small intersections, the car’s computer might be bigger than its motor.

It will take awhile for this technology to prove it can save us from the flawed driving and bad luck of ourselves and others. In the meantime, are there ways to improve highway safety on secondary roads?

That question was the subject of a meeting this week in Valatie attended by engineers from the state Department of Transportation, State Police, County Sheriff David Bartlett, and Kinderhook and Valatie officeholders as well as local residents concerned about the dangers of Route 203 and U.S. Route 9.

The remedies sought by many at the meeting were lower speed limits. How slow is slow enough? The standard method for deciding relies on a measurement called the 85th percentile. It identifies a top speed that is not exceeded by 85% of drivers on a particular road. Looked at another way, it says that only 15% of drivers exceed that speed, which is apparently considered a “reasonable” percentage for police to handle.

Critics of the method say it’s outdated. State highway engineers say they do use the 85th percentile along with other data, like accident reports, to determine a speed limit.

Unlike the airline industry, there’s no way to measure near misses on the highway. So the speed limit from the edge of Valatie to a spot well within the Village of Chatham is 55 mph. That’s fine for the two or three straight sections of the road. It’s nuts for a highway with no shoulders in certain parts, unless you consider cow pastures, cornfields, a farm stand or a pond safe places to pull over.

The counter argument to requests for lowered speed limits is that they make normally careful drivers take more risks to maintain a higher speed, and this bad behavior increases the chances for accidents instead of lowering them. There is some data to support this concern, but surely such assumptions about the causes of driver misbehavior have to be considered on a road-by-road basis. This stretch of Route 203 looks more like a piece of cooked spaghetti than a drag strip. The options for passing the car in front of you are as limited at 45 mph as they are now at 55. The only difference is that the must-pass fools we contend with now are driving at least 10 mph faster.

At this week’s meeting the state engineers remarked on the disappearance of government funding for major infrastructure improvements like the reconstruction of highways. They know how much needs to be done to keep our roads and bridges safe, let alone up to date. Perhaps they were surprised that their announcement of plans to repave this section of Route 203 wasn’t greeted with more enthusiasm.

But the engineers have been through similar meetings many times and they probably expected to hear the concern that a smoother road surface will encourage some drivers to go faster. Likewise, road reconstruction was not on the wish list of most residents. Making the highway wider, flatter and straighter would ratchet up the “reasonable” speed even more. It also would pave a wider swath of the landscape and effectively giving many motorists less time to appreciate their surroundings.

All of us are in a hurry sometimes, never mind the reason. We believe we need to cut that 30 seconds off the five-mile drive between the two villages. But it’s time to slow down and consider whose needs come first.

It’s possible that more data about traffic patterns on the road might suggest that lowering the speed limit to 45 mph saves lives. That’s better than saving minutes.

It’s hard to know precisely what that data might be, although a combination of drone observations and sensors at multiple sites might be more convincing. Until the state obtains more sophisticated tools, the engineers should consider that they already have the beginnings of crowd-source data: the statements the public made at the meeting. So far, the crowd wants the speed lowered. Does the state have better data?

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