Are they roads or highways? Drivers decide

Traffic was typically light, road conditions dry,

visibility just fine in the gray autumn afternoon.

Yet Wednesday brought the tragic death of a motorist on Blakely Avenue, a stretch of roadway marked by good sight-lines and posted with the seemingly reasonable speed of 40 mph. So as police sorted through physical evidence at the scene, and took statements from witnesses and others, the inquiries boiled down to a single question: Why?

Along with growth (and to an extent, as a function thereof), traffic and speeding have been among the defining public issues of the past few years on Bainbridge Island. Police have added a full-time traffic officer, and targeted repeat-complaint areas for enforcement. General considerations of “traffic calming” come into play each time a local road is redesigned or improved; posted speeds have been lowered in some areas, and “humps” and medians constructed in several neighborhoods.

Yet such efforts have not met universal acclaim. Police tell us that most speeders ticketed in complaint areas live in the neighborhood. And a few weeks back, the Review received a letter from a citizen irked by the recent re-striping of High School Road, with a double-yellow line indicating “No Passing.” The effort, it was predicted, would “frustrate drivers no end.”

At Wednesday’s accident scene, neighbors and those who use Blakely Avenue sourly attested to the regularity with which some motorists there zip around others en route to Winslow. At one time in the not-too-distant past, Blakely was in fact marked to allow passing at several points. But that changed about four years ago, when the road was resurfaced and restriped with a double-yellow.

The change, city engineer Jeff Jensen told us in an interview this week, was the result of policy discussions between public works officials and then-Police Chief John Sutton. The goal has been to phase out passing zones on all island roads except the highway, putting down solid center striping each time a roadway is resurfaced.

As the reasoning goes, passing zones give a subconscious signal to drivers that higher speeds are okay across the board. That can be bad news, when even the island’s main arterials are lined with scores of driveways and turnouts, points of potential conflict between those in the lanes and those trying to enter them. And on lazy Bainbridge Island, why do you really need to pass anyway?

“They had this basic look and feel that was like a highway,” Jensen said of our one-time county roads, “even though the (posted) speeds were between 25 and 40.”

Jensen called Wednesday’s fatal collision “disheartening,”

but put a positive (albeit logically unverifiable) spin on the department’s striping philosophy.

“Between the time we made (Blakely) a no-passing zone and now, maybe somebody didn’t get in an accident because they didn’t try to pass,” he mused. “We can’t say.”

Indeed, no one among us can. And sadly, no amount of signs, stripes or even patrol officers on local roadways can prevent a momentary, potentially tragic lapse in driver judgment.

The ultimate arbiter of traffic safety will always be the

individual motorist: You. Something to think about, next time you’re “frustrated no end” by a double-yellow.

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