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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Pedal to the metal on and off campus

Published: October 2, 2009
Section: Opinions

<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Bret Matthew/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Bret Matthew/The Hoot

It was called “the pedal-to-the-metal bill” by friends and foes alike. The legislation, signed by President Clinton in 1995, effectively removed government control of highway speed limits, reversing a ‘70s law that capped all speed limits at 55 miles per hour in order to conserve energy (and survive what had become a severe oil embargo). Many states raised their speed limits by 10 miles per hour.

10 years later, 12,545 Americans have died as a result. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in July, those deaths have had a net cost of $12 billion. While skepticism over this specific figure is warranted, the fact remains that an increase in the speed limit can, as the authors of the study report, have “long-term repercussions.”

Why do faster speeds correlate with higher deaths? Any reader who has operated a motor vehicle can certainly attest to the fact that driving faster is more dangerous. The reasons are numerous, but they stem from the fact that in the scheme of evolution, man was never meant to move faster than 10-20 miles per hour.

Why, then, do Americans often drive at inappropriate speeds, considering the inevitable danger of doing so?

One reason is the perception of safety. Highways are designed to deceive drivers into perceiving that they are moving slower than is the case. The ‘white dividing lines’ in highways and on roads are actually drawn proportional to the speed limit. On South Street, for instance, such a white line might be slightly longer than the width of a Hoot centerfold.

On the other hand, on a highway, white lines can be as long as one to two car lengths. The artificiality of such an arrangement often deceives drivers into thinking that all roads with familiar markings – dividing lines, barriers, colorful signs – are safe at any speed.

They aren’t.

Imagine, on the other hand, driving on a narrow road with unfamiliar signage at night. Any reasonable driver would slow down in order to ensure his own safety. After traversing such a road numerous times, the driver might increase speed over time, but still drive slowly.

This contrasts greatly with driving on an interstate. An experienced U.S. driver who enters any interstate in the country will perceive the road’s safety and speed up as a result. Even if the driver had never been on the road, its similarity to other, familiar interstate highways will lead to a perception of safety.

At Brandeis, only one roadway exists, its speed limit set at 15 miles per hour. Given the fact that the campus is densely settled, with pedestrians often darting into roads and from behind cars, this limit makes sense. Nevertheless, cars often drive through the loop road at 20, 25, or even 30 miles per hour.

Slow, right? After all, the speed limit in front of your house, if you come from the suburbs as I do, is probably in that range. So driving at 20 – 30 miles per hour can’t be speeding, can it?

The answer all depends on perceptions. As a driver loops around the Brandeis roadway by public safety and East Quad and proceeds up the hill toward Rabb steps, driving at 20 miles per hour, I would submit, is dangerous. Sure, the stretch of road looks like your everyday street, but consider the road’s failings: low visibility, cars on the right, a narrow sidewalk on the left, and densely populated dorms on either side.

As a driver approaches the top of the hill, moreover, they enter the area around Rabb Steps, always a difficult intersection, especially during peak time between classes. With students moving around the area and trucks coming in and out of the loading dock, a dangerous situation presents itself.

The problem arises, however, that drivers often will drive at these increased speeds in this area of campus. Some have not visited before and do not know what to expect. Others – often students – are intimately familiar with the area and, as in the case of the narrow roadway at nighttime, gradually drive faster the more they drive at Brandeis. Still others are just reckless drivers who, for a variety of reasons, drive faster than the speed limit in any situation.

As the statistics of the above study make clear, this problem cannot continue for long without a serious incident occurring. Personally, I have seen many near misses over my time in this particular intersection. (Last year, a car traveling fast up the hill nearly hit a pedestrian exiting the loading dock area and proceeding to cross the road. Interestingly enough, the car, which was a hybrid, made no sound as it whizzed by). I have also witnessed a number of drivers slam on the breaks in this intersection. Slamming on the breaks should not happen at Brandeis.

While many solutions to this problem certainly exist, one remains, by far, the most appealing: give drivers a reason to slow down. Narrow the roads, put more parking spots in dangerous places, and add speed bumps, stop signs, and cross walks. The result is a roadway less likely to be perceived safe, thus requiring drivers to think twice before speeding up.

European suburbs have done just this. There exists a town in Scandinavia that – imagine this – has no traffic signage. The road itself and the situation presented to drivers act to maintain normal traffic. The idea is clear: signs aren’t needed if drivers perceive a dangerous situation, as they will naturally slow their driving.

While such drastic measures are certainly not necessary overnight, they ought to be considered not only in communities across the country, but also at Brandeis. Speeding is dangerous, but it happens for a reason: drivers know that they can get away with faster speeds. The future of public safety lies in reminding drivers that they cannot.