"Rural roads, highway speedsParents organize in hopes of slowing motorists through island school zones."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:46 PM
"Drivers, they say, are traveling through school zones at highway speeds.And with a recent traffic study to back them up, some Bainbridge parents are organizing and hope to find solutions by this fall.Speeding is an island-wide issue, but we believe schools have to be at the top of the list, said Althea Mallove, one of the organizers of an informal group calling itself the Parents for Safe School Zones.A report by a Bellevue traffic-consulting firm - released in March, based on data collected last fall - showed that on North Madison Avenue near Wilkes Elementary School, 99 percent of vehicles exceed the posted speed limit of 40 mph. At least 15 percent were clocked in excess of 62 mph.The situation was nearly as bad near Blakely Elementary School, where 15 percent of drivers topped 45 mph on Blakely Avenue, and 15 percent raced down Baker Hill Road at 66 mph or better.The actual situation may not be quite as alarming as those numbers indicate, according to Bainbridge Island Public Works Director Randy Witt. The speed data came from an island-wide traffic study. The caveat, Witt said, is that while the data accurately reflects speeds, it does not reveal how close to the schools the speeds were registered, nor whether school was in session when the speeds were recorded.But Friday morning, a portable radar display on North Madison Avenue near Wilkes Elementary School showed speeds generally between the posted 40 mph and 50 mph. Most drivers slowed appreciably as they approached the display set up by Bainbridge Police. The primary offender, going 50 mph south of the school, appeared to be a school bus.Irrespective of actual numbers, though, almost universally acknowledged is the fact that islanders drive fast.Historically, there has been little traffic enforcement outside of Winslow, city engineer Jeff Jensen said. People have gotten used to driving at pretty much the speed they want.There is no shortage of solutions. The problem, public works officials say, is that there are tradeoffs, and that the possible solutions raise their own set of problems.The issuesSchool-zone speed involves two separate issues, according to the consultant's report.The first issue is requiring motorists to slow to 20 mph when children are at risk. That, in turn, raises the question of when to impose that speed limit, and how to notify motorists that it is in effect.At present, signs near schools impose a 20 mph limit when children are present. But that can be confusing or hard to enforce. Children are defined as present when they are in a marked crosswalk, waiting at the shoulder to cross, or walking on the shoulder within 300 feet in either direction from a marked crosswalk.A child has to be under the wheels, said Mary McCurdy, another parent active in the anti-speeding effort.Even Bainbridge Island Police Detective Scott Anderson called the children-present standard difficult to enforce and extremely difficult to understand. Two alternatives are to impose the 20 mph limit during specified hours, or to have flashing lights on the sign when the speed is in effect. But Anderson is not comfortable with either of those solutions.When kids are in school, they're pretty well supervised, he said. The bigger problem is when they're playing sports or something after school or on the weekends outside of normal school hours.Anderson's preferred solution is simple - a 20 mph speed limit in school zones all the time.It's consistent, easy to enforce, and safer for all concerned, he said. And what would it cost you in time?But Witt is dubious.The data say that people are not paying attention to the speed-limit signs now, he said. If we change, will it do any good?The second major issue is the underlying posted speed of the road itself outside of school zones. Traffic studies suggest that the higher the posted speed, the less likely people are to slow to 20 mph for a school zone.Reducing the posted speeds on the streets where schools are located is one of the focuses of the citizen group.If people are traveling 40, they're not going to go to 20, McCurdy said. If people are traveling 30, they'll slow down more.But reducing speed limits dramatically below the speed that people actually travel can itself be problematic, according to the city.Traffic engineers frequently set speed limits to conform to what drivers are actually doing. In light of the high speeds measured around some of the island schools, the traffic consultants said speed limits on those streets should actually be raised.That's not an option we're considering, Witt said, but it does show the problem, when you've got citizens saying the speed limits should be reduced and others saying they should be raised.Another factor that makes the speed issue difficult is that the island's schools are located on arterial streets, and the two with the highest speeds - Wilkes and Blakely - are in historically rural areas, where people may be used to driving fast.Some parents have called for improved pedestrian access in those areas, including trails and sidewalks.The heavy traffic on those streets precludes using such traffic-calming devices such as speed bumps, Witt said.Just wait until a fire truck hits a speed bump, he said, or a school bus hits one and you have a bunch of kids bouncing around.No matter how the engineering questions are resolved, they are only a third of the battle, Witt said. The other two prongs of the problem are public education and enforcement.Acknowledging that enforcement has been inadequate, Bainbridge Police will add a full-time traffic officer to beef up its efforts.Beginning May 1, the officer will concentrate on a list of speeding hot-spots, many of which are near the schools.Mallove and McCurdy are working on the public education angle, as well as on lobbying for changes. Their group is holding a public meeting from 7-9 p.m. on May 15 at the Commons to gather support and answer questions.The options are out there. We want feedback on what the parents say they want, McCurdy said. We would like to see something in place for the next school year. "