Former firefighter voices concerns

Special to the PRESS

February 5, 2015

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest column by Laguna Vista resident and former Laguna Vista Volunteer Firefighter Ralph Ayers in response to a story about speed bump concerns in last week’s edition of the PRESS. 

Dear Editor, Port Isabel – South Padre PRESS

I should begin by thanking the PRESS for the fine article published last week as a result of concerns I expressed to the publisher at our Rotary meeting on Friday, Jan. 23. I’m pleased that the response expressed concern for the proliferation of speed bumps and humps and for the safety hazards they create. Unfortunately they are becoming increasingly popular in our local communities, called for by a few well intentioned citizens concerned for the safety of children and pedestrians. The article correctly reported my concern which began during my 19 year association with the Laguna Vista Volunteer Fire Department. My experience with speed bumps however, goes much further back to the years I spent living in Mexico City in the early 1960’s and over thousands of miles traveled in that country during the years since. I offer the following in an effort to raise public awareness to the dangers of speed bumps and humps, hopefully starting a debate within our communities.

In a 1997 study prepared by the Center for Transportation Research and Education at Iowa State University, it was determined that most cars can safely traverse over speed humps between 15 and 20 mph, (small trucks and SUVs don’t have to slow quite as much), but fire trucks, ambulances and other first responders cannot, and most must come to almost a complete stop before easing over the humps. I’ve witnessed people trying to “side-step” the humps by running two wheels around the edge, I’ve done it myself at HEB parking lots because it minimizes the jolt to my car’s suspension. Unfortunately this is causing ruts on my lawn. One report I read notes that a young girl in Florida was killed by a driver trying to avoid a speed bump. Likewise, I’ve observed many vehicles ease over the humps, then gun their engines to speed on to the next hump. This braking and acceleration has greatly increased the noise pollution, especially from large pick-up trucks, and many studies show that it also increases fuel consumption and air pollution. Who has not seen an 18-wheeler barrel through a yellow traffic light to avoid stopping? Why? Because starting up again from a dead stop can use as much as $15 worth of fuel. Imaging how much it costs for our fire trucks to have to constantly start and stop when navigating speed humps on local streets. That’s our tax money, folks!

The Iowa study further determined, as reported in last week’s article in the PRESS, that road humps can slow first responders by as much as 3.5 to 10 seconds per speed hump. The shorter time no doubt applies to smaller vehicles while the 10 second estimate surely applies to fire trucks or ambulances carrying a patient in critical condition with a neck or spinal injury or being treated with needles or intravenous therapy. Do the math. Nine speed humps on Laguna Vista’s Palm Boulevard. That adds a full 90 seconds (1.5 minutes) to the response time. I recently conducted a test drive doing my best to simulate the speeds of a fire truck traveling the length of Palm Boulevard, and it took almost 4.5 minutes to travel the length of the street. When your house is on fire or a loved one has had a heart attack, those timings could mean life or death. Is that what we want in our communities?

I’m confident that our local school bus drivers are well trained and drive safely but it’s easy to imagine situations where a bus might inadvertently go a bit too fast and our children are not required to wear seat belts on the buses. Kids being kids, and who do not always stay seated as they are supposed to, could be jolted about inside the bus. Apart from that, the buses pick up the students in the morning and return them in the afternoon, which means that any school bus traveling Palm Boulevard will make a minimum of 18 passes a day over the humps, not to mention the other 20 humps currently installed in Laguna Vista. Anyone care to guess how long it will be before our buses need maintenance on their suspension and brakes? It’s your tax money, folks!

Well intentioned residents who think they have found a way to slow the traffic by the installation of the self-policing speed humps sometimes referred to as “sleeping police officers,” should read studies that show that the vast majority of pedestrian/vehicular injuries and deaths take place at intersections, not on residential streets. Our streets were paved for vehicular traffic. I know of no street anywhere in America that was ever paved to be used as a playground or recreational accessory to the community. I was raised to always walk on the side of the street facing oncoming traffic if circumstances required my walking along a road. Our local pedestrians, joggers and dog walkers pay no such heed to that simple safety precaution and treat the street as if it was a smooth path installed for their comfort and recreation. You’re wrong, people, and sooner or later someone driving near you may be so preoccupied with traversing a speed hump that they may not see you at all.

Drivers will not be expecting bicyclists to lose control but kids often think that the road humps are a fun way to practice daredevil tricks. Not a good idea. My kids were told they could NEVER play in the front yard or driveway and they had to stay far away from the street, yet in our community I frequently see young children playing ball or riding tricycles in the driveway. Good drivers will be alert for errant children, but it’s your job as parents to keep them out of harm’s way. Abdicating that responsibility to a city government all too eager to lessen your anxiety by artificially making the road hazardous to the vehicles that use it is shortsighted and ill-advised.

The manual of Uniform Traffic Control (MUTCD) says that speed humps are not an official traffic control device. The Iowa study says that before speed humps are installed, traffic engineering studies should be conducted, enforcement of existing laws should be examined and residents should be educated as to possible solutions. Furthermore, the community should consider the legalities. “Courts have held the installing agency liable for damage and personal injuries resulting from speed humps.” Many California courts have done just that. A prudent city government should carefully document the justification for any and all decisions concerning the installation of speed humps, including a careful review of sate and local laws. The Iowa study concludes that while installation of speed humps begins with residents’ requests, engineering studies, pedestrian studies, vehicle classification studies, traffic count, school routes and more should all be factored into the final decision. Nationally, many communities require a petition by two-thirds of the residents on a street before installation begins.

With respect to our elected government in Laguna Vista and the appointed city manager, who have done many good things for our community, I do not believe any such thorough studies were conducted. And if residents of Palm Boulevard were consulted and polled, I was not one of them. Because of a severe hearing deficit, partially corrected by new hearing aids, I rarely attend city meetings as I once did years ago. I’ve no doubt that recent street “improvements” were presented and discussed in that forum and later reported to the public in the city manager’s Jan. 23 update. In his rebuttal to my comments in last weeks article, Mr. Vela states that “A citizen has to make a request and I will consider it and we’ll review the merits. We’ll see if it’s needed and from there on decide whether we should put one in or not.” I would ask, how many requests he received and who is the “we” who reviewed the merits? If a small minority of vocal resident made the request, should not the rest of the residents have been informed and asked for their opinions, as well? Were studies made and published? I think not. It appears that Mr. Vela’s desire to “maintain the character of a neighborhood” was predicated on appeasement of citizens who made their request for speed humps without benefit of much research. He was quoted as saying, “There are a lot of citizens that have been excited with the speed bumps installed.” Tell us exactly how many, please.

Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute and Kathleen Calongne of the Independence Institute Center for the American Dream co-authored a review of a study on speed humps installed in Oakland, California, and found the research faulty. It had based justification for installation of speed humps on statistics showing just 49 accidents over a six year period, involving children on Oakland’s residential streets out of a total of 85,000 children. That’s about .05 percent which is a sample way too small to be reliable. They also found that the researchers made no effort to determine how many homes had burned because of delayed fire crews or how many people, including children, might have died due to delays to paramedics. “For every minute that (a rescue) is delayed, the likelihood of survival drops by about 7-10 percent.” In other words, the the studies city officials often cite are frequently inadequate or skewed to please a minority who wan the humps in place.

In addition to slowing down emergency vehicles, speed humps slow down police responses to a burglary and domestic violence cases making it easier for the suspects to escape. On Lake Price road in Orange County, Florida, nine bumps were installed in a half mile stretch. Most residents didn’t want them but County officials refused to remove them because “a couple of residents wanted them.” The result was that many residents sold their homes to avoid living near the “roller coaster” road. In fact, local realtors reported that property values were lowered because prospective buyers likewise, didn’t want to live on such a street.

From the limited research I’ve done it is clear that speed humps and bumps have many negatives and it is questionable that they save lives. In fact, they may actually cause more fatalities. At the beginning I mentioned encountering many speed bumps when I lived in Mexico. There, you rarely find them in residential streets, but most often on highways entering or leaving a town or in front of municipal and police locations. Why? Primarily to slow down traffic entering a community and to impede the rapid escape of law breakers. I urge our local communities to enter a debate with the citizens before more speed humps and bumps are installed anywhere, conduct some serious research, and give serious consideration to removing them where they really serve little purpose. And please, let us halt the political expedient of knee-jerk responses to uninformed requests from small minorities in or communities. The “squeaky wheel” should not always be sucked up to. Our city officials have an obligation and duty to serve the greater good for ALL our citizens.

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