by Chuck Harlow, PE
Transportation safety has evolved as our vehicles and transportation systems have evolved. There was a time when there were no lane divisions or speed limits. The first stop sign in America, a white square with black lettering (not reflective), was, at the time, a revolutionary idea. Electricity made traffic lights safer because the gas-fueled lights would sometimes explode and injure the police officers who were controlling them. Connecticut was the first state to enact a speed limit in 1901, but it was not until the 1970s that a nationwide speed limit was set. While a bike lane existed in the late 1800s, it was in the 1960s that the first “modern” designated bike lane was created in California. As transportation engineers, it is our job to keep pushing transportation safety forward.
I am the co-chair of the Engineering Subcommittee for Connecticut’s Vision Zero Council (VZC). The VZC aims to bring together stakeholders to introduce policies, establish partnerships, and leverage available technologies to prevent traffic-related deaths and serious injuries. We aspire to achieve the goal of zero deaths from traffic fatalities. As I reflect on my tenure at the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) and these last six years as Fuss & O’Neill’s Chief Traffic Engineer, I recognize that the goal of the VZC is a goal shared by all traffic and transportation professionals.
Last month, in Massachusetts, a new law went into effect that is designed to make roads safer for “vulnerable users”, which includes pedestrians, bicyclists, roadside workers, scooters, skateboarders, roller skaters, horse riders, horse-drawn carriages, and farm equipment. The law states that, if it is not possible to overtake a vulnerable user at a safe distance in their lane, the driver may cross the centerline when safe to do so and adhere to the road’s speed limit. While allowed, the operative words here are “safe to do so”. It is incumbent on the driver to pick a safe time/location to make this maneuver, along with considering the safety of the vulnerable user, the curvature of the road, sightlines to other vehicles, etc.
The CTDOT has implemented a program to reduce speeding in work zones. This program, called “The Know the Zone: Speed Safety Camera Program,” will deploy white SUVs containing radar and camera technology to select work zones. The system uses radar to identify (and capture images of) vehicles traveling 15 mph or above the posted work zone speed limit. Work zones with ongoing enforcement will have signage 500 and 200 feet before the SUV to alert motorists. Warnings and fines will be mailed to registered owners of the offending vehicle. A similar program was implemented in Maryland, which reported that speeding violations in their work zones decreased by more than 80% two years after program launch.
From the design perspective, our traffic and transportation engineers look to create safe spaces for all users long before a foot, tire, or wheel ever traverses them. For example, in South Burlington, VT, Fuss & O’Neill is currently designing a shared-use path on Williston Road. Williston Road is among Vermont’s busiest roads, connecting I-89 to the University of Vermont (UVM), downtown Burlington, and the Lake Champlain waterfront. The project area currently has a four-lane road (two lanes in each direction) and is located just east of the I-89 interchange. The existing sidewalk is three feet wide with a four-foot greenbelt1 and the road has a one-foot shoulder. By contrast, the 2,000 linear-foot shared-use path will provide an eight-foot greenbelt, eleven-foot-wide shared-use path, pedestrian level lighting, and six new shade trees. This project is part of the client’s “City Center” Master Plan and will connect an existing shared-use path from UVM over I-89 to this facility.
While we design and implement safety improvements today, we must also think about the safety needs of the future as technology continues to evolve. Autonomous vehicles, drones, the hyperloop, eVTOL, etc. will require new regulations, safety controls, and infrastructure. We will also need to consider how to best integrate new modes of transportation with existing transportation as it is likely that new vehicles will be operating alongside what we currently consider “normal” transportation methods. I will not theorize how this will come to be, but I know that traffic and transportation engineers will rise to this evolution as they always have before – with a dedication to safety.
1 A greenbelt is a designated open space area, protected by law from development, to limit urban sprawl.
About the Author
Chuck Harlow, PE is Fuss & O’Neill’s Chief Traffic Engineer, and has committed his 39-year career to planning and designing safe roadways in communities throughout New England.