EDITORIAL: Slow down, you move too fast

GOT A CALL THIS WEEK from a reader concerned about the intersection in Ancram where state Route 82 intersects county Route 7. Drivers heading east on 82 mistake that downhill stretch for the ski jump ramp at the Olympics. If they go any faster they’ll be airborne.

The caller believes it’s just a matter of time before there’s a terrible accident at that site. And it’s not the only local roadway in the county where neighbors want the speed limit lowered.

It didn’t take me and the caller long to agree that among the likely culprits going too fast are folks from New York City who, as a group, are always hurrying somewhere or another. And now they’re settling here but driving like they still live there.

These intersections need not only a reduced speed limit but also regular monitoring by State Police and deputy sheriffs. That could lower the risk and might offer some insight into where these speed demons call home. But this raises the question of whether that kind of data would persuade the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to act.

The first part of that question is whether we were correct in singling out one group of drivers as the source of the problem. Is there any data that would give us a clue? I checked the mother of all data collections, the United States Census. The 2020 results were just released. The census shows that Columbia County has undergone some changes in population in the last decade, but from what’s been released so far, what’s happened here is a loss of population, not a gain.

If you missed the news that the census figures have been released, don’t be surprised. It happened a week ago when the news cycle was in overdrive with stories on Afghanistan, the resignation of the governor and the Delta variant of Covid. So the 5.7% drop in the number of people who live in the county now as compared to 2010 could easily have slipped by without notice. But there were 63,066 people living here a decade ago and now there are only 61,570.

The new census finds that over the last year the number of people who moved from another county in New York to Columbia County decreased. It’s a small percentage, but it casts more doubt on my all-city-people-drive-too-fast theory. My assumption that there is an “other” group to blame begins to sound more like scapegoating than demography. And if it’s not city people, we’re left with the conclusion that it’s our neighbors… or us. (Exclude space aliens—they reportedly avoid our highways.)

But what about another extreme kind of driver: people over 65. One of the complaints directed at older drivers is that we drive too slowly. And there are a lot of us older people in this county. The average age in New York State last year 39.2 years; the average age in Columbia County last year? 48.2 years. County residents over the age of 65 make up almost one-quarter of the county’s total population.

If the county has experienced any other noticeable growth in a particular segment of the population it doesn’t stand out in a quick review of this latest census. Take income, for instance. The median household income in 2019 was $66,787. That’s a $1,000 better than the national median household but it’s nearly $6,000 less than the state median.

Will the likely future increase in the number of slow drivers offset the speeders? If that happens speeders might simply avoid some roads because there are too many slowpokes like me ahead.

This is not data analysis. The polite term is whimsical speculation.

But what is certain is that the DOT must approve speed limit changes and work with data on the volume of such things as traffic flow and accidents.

People who want lower speed limits need to speak the DOT’s language and acknowledge its standards. And they need to organize to press for change.

I don’t know whether the DOT reviews census data in making speed limit decisions. But if not, it’s about time they did.

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