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Road Zen: Self enforcing/educating roads

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Gene Schmitz

You may not be aware of it, but the roads and streets we drive on are speaking to us. No, I don’t need a shrink — at least not about this. The way that roads/streets and their surrounding environs are constructed send us subliminal messages that affect, for better or worse, how we drive. In the best of circumstances these physical and/or visual effects lead drivers to drive at a safe and intended speed. In other words, we are unconsciously more inclined to operate within the speed limit. This situation is often referred to as a “self enforcing road” (SER).

For an example of how a visual restraint can affect speed, we need to look no farther than the current status of the Beartracks (Higgins) bridge. With one lane in each direction (versus the the normal two), plus the presence of barriers on each side and the two lanes separated by flex-posts, there’s a lot of added psychological friction that’s reduced the average speed from close to 30 (the limit has always been 25) down to 20ish. The individual lane width is essentially unchanged, yet we feel much more restrained than when we drove on the wide-open bridge of four lanes plus a bike lane on each side. On regular streets (those free from construction zone constraints) the intentional physical/visual modification to streets intended to reduce average speed are typically referred to as traffic calming.

In the past year, two neighborhoods have welcomed the traffic calming effects of low-cost (no concrete work involved) traffic circles: Maurice Street, near the university, and a section of Schilling and Kemp Streets, in the Franklin-to-the-Fort neighborhood. These are an increasingly preferable method of speed moderation compared to the more traditional use of stop signs every few blocks. While somewhat less costly, stop signs produce some unfortunate side effects as a residential traffic calming treatment. There is a tendency for drivers to treat the situation as a sort of segmented drag strip; rapid acceleration following each (almost) stop to make up for lost time. This creates undesirable added noise on what should be a relatively quiet street. There’s also a cost to drivers — some extra fuel consumption and tire wear compared to simply moving down the street at a constant, moderate speed. Extra fuel burned also translates to added air pollution in our inversion-prone valley.

In some communities there’s also been a trend of creating clear zones along higher traffic suburban streets, where speeds are planned to be about 40-45. This was adopted from the design of freeways. The idea was that if a vehicle left the roadway it could come to a stop before hitting large objects (mature trees, etc.) — thus reducing traffic deaths. Unfortunately, this feeling of open space induced higher speeds; creating more crashes and danger to pedestrians. So there’s been a return to having more of these type streets being tree-lined; the visual friction helping keep speeds and collisions down. Of course the extra shade and oxygen is appreciated as well.

In the keeping with the season, I’m thankful for the introduction of self enforcing/educating roads, particularly in our residential areas. Traffic circles and roundabouts can be somewhat confusing and mildly stressful when first introduced; there’s a definite learning curve. But the safety numbers (far fewer serious injuries and deaths) don’t lie. The deadly T-bone crashes from someone running a red light or stop sign are eliminated. Highway Patrol personnel have noted seeing plenty of bad crashes from running red lights at regular intersections, but never seeing anyone run a roundabout.

Travel safely to your Thanksgiving gatherings, everyone. Oh — and “Go Griz!”

Gene Schmitz is a lifelong bicyclist and traffic safety advocate. He is a member of the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board; this column represents his views alone and not necessarily those of the board. 

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