Speed trapped

It was my first ride in a helicopter, and I didn't even know it," says Peggy, a thin, gray-haired woman recalling the day she was airlifted from her east Orange County subdivision after neighbors found her unconscious in the street.

No one knows what happened to Peggy on May 24; the woman, who asked that her last name not be used, only remembers doing what she always does: taking an early-morning stroll around the block. Some neighbors think it was a hit-and-run; the fire-rescue report says it was a fall. Either way, an emergency response was required.

The official story is that Peggy's injuries precluded an ambulance ride. But her neighbors think it went down differently.

Peggy's subdivision, a modest collection of tract houses called Regency Park, abuts Lake Price Drive, a road that connects East Colonial Drive with North Tanner Road and is a commonly used cut-through. Along a half mile of Lake Price Drive, travelers encounter nine so-called speed humps -- which, the neighbors say, the paramedics didn't want to drive over with Peggy in back.

Orange and Seminole County Fire Rescue officials say that's not the case, that Peggy would have been airlifted no matter where she fell. (The two counties jointly operate the nearby rescue station that responded.) It is accepted, however, that speed humps do slow emergency vehicles, be it ambulances or fire trucks, and Regency Park residents fear those delays may end up costing lives. They point to a letter written last month by an Orange County Fire and Rescue captain that said an ambulance took a "possibly longer" route to avoid the humps.

What if the situation is life threatening? they ask.

The debate takes added importance with Orange County preparing to spend $500,000 during the next five years installing still more humps and other traffic-calming devices. Indeed, county officials say that among neighborhood associations, the humps are wildly popular.

Elsewhere around the country, however, such enthusiasm has been undermined by the realities. Neighborhood associations may like them, but almost everyone else hates them -- including many fire departments. Lawsuits and angry protests have followed.

In fact, the humps may be inherently illegal. And the most damning analysis suggests they may be responsible for the deaths of far more people than they will ever save.

Orange County jumped on the humps in 1994, joining a trend that began sweeping the country in the late 1980s. The Orange County Commission voted then to allow the placement of speed humps in residential areas. "Speed humps," according to the county's public-works department, "are used as an effective tool in relieving speeding problems found within a neighborhood."

Before humps can be installed -- a process that requires two-thirds of adjacent homeowners to agree to a one-time tax that offsets the $1,400-per-hump cost -- the road has to meet certain criteria. First, it must qualify as a "local street and/or collector road" that carries between 800 and 3,000 vehicles per day. Second, the problem of speeding traffic must be documented, with at least 85 percent of vehicles exceeding the maximum 30-mile-per-hour limit allowed on a humped road.

So far, nine neighborhoods have taken up the county's offer to install the humps. Many more are expected to follow suit when the county makes the $500,000 available in a 50-50 matching program. It's all according to demand, says county public works deputy director Mark Massaro.

But from what does that demand stem?

Common sense suggests that safety is the main concern. Yet Canada Safety Council (CSC) Traffic Safety and Training manager Raynald Marchand, who has fought speed humps in Canada, sees it differently: "As a general statement," he says, "the CSC has seen traffic-calming devices as a hidden way of sending traffic elsewhere. [It's] not a safety issue."

At least in one sense, Lake Price Drive no longer meets the county's criteria for the humps, which were approved by the county commission in the early 1990s to slow traffic brought about by new developments in the area. (The last of the humps were completed only last April.) The county's statistics show that as many as 4,000 vehicles now travel that road daily -- well above the 3,000-load limit.

Even so, Massaro says they're doing the job. Before the humps were installed, 85 percent of vehicles on Lake Price Drive were barreling through at 40 mph, on a street where the posted limit is 25 mph. The traffic since has slowed to slightly below 25 mph. As a result, he declares the humps "very successful."

In its limited capacity, Orange County's speed-hump program may indeed be successful. But as it expands, problems almost certainly will magnify. Indeed, many communities that installed humps have run into serious problems.

First, there's a legitimate concern that speed humps are illegal. Here's why: All traffic-control devices, such as stop signs and red lights, must be drawn from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices -- and speed humps are nowhere to be found therein.

In Sarasota, that gave ammunition to two residents who felt that the city's hump program was simply a pain in the ass. They sued. The city argued that the humps were traffic calming devices, not control devices; the significant legal distinction held that control devices give messages, while calming devices do not.

The circuit court disagreed, and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. "How you classify [control or calming] depends on the purpose [of the devices]," says plaintiff's attorney Michael Hartenstine. "If the purpose is to control and influence traffic speed and volume, then it's traffic control."

An appeals court reversed the decision -- not because the circuit judge was wrong, the court said, but because the two residents could not prove they had the rightful standing to bring the lawsuit. (They didn't actually live on a street with humps.) What that means for future lawsuits is uncertain: Hartenstine says it leaves the door open for anyone directly affected by speed humps; the Sarasota city attorney's office says the decision probably will deny any lawsuits unless the plaintiff could show that he or she was denied due process -- in other words, if speed humps were installed without community input.

Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is another possible issue. Under the ADA, the disabled are ensured access to government "facilities" -- including public roads -- "safely, independently and without humiliation," says Emily Wilcox, an advocate for the disabled in Berkeley, Calif. Many disabled groups insist the humps are a barrier to that access.

Berkeley's speed-hump program in particular elicited much protest from the disabled community. "Those of us having problems with speed humps," says Wilcox, "have painful, degenerative disabilities." Riding in a vehicle as it travels over the humps, even at speeds below the posted limit, causes her long-lasting pain and injury, she says.

Rick Hall of Austin, Texas, is on the front line in the speed-hump fight. He's helped to set up an Internet network for about 15 anti-hump groups (www.io.com/~bumper/ada.htm). The humps, he says, block disabled people's access to roads, and that's illegal. "We want to see some reform," Hall says, "not an end to all traffic calming."

Reform may be inevitable. Already, a lawsuit filed by a disabled man in Bethesda, Md., alleges that city's speed humps blocked his access to his home. And in Berkeley, an internal city staff memo expressed concern that traffic calming did indeed violate the ADA. If that's deemed the case, Orange County's program could open up the county to the same sorts of challenges.

But the most immediate problem -- in terms of both litigation and public concern -- is the safety issue. Put simply: Does the slower traffic on humped streets save more lives than slowing ambulances and fire trucks will cost?

That's the issue over which fire-rescue departments across the country have butted heads with traffic engineers, many of whom do not see the slower response time as a major issue.

The Institute of Transportation Engineers Journal studied the impact that humps had on emergency vehicles in Portland, Ore. "The bottom line -- when properly designed, they had minimal delay or effect," says American Public Works Association spokesman John MacMullen.

But what's minimal? The Journalarticle, published in August 1997, concluded that each hump delays traffic up to 9.2 seconds. Along the nine humps on Lake Price Drive in Orange County, that could mean a delay of up to 82.8 seconds -- almost a minute and a half, each way. If paramedics deem it unsafe to ferry a patient across the humps for whatever reason, there really is no alternate route they can take without going several minutes out of their way.

In Regency Park, that fact was made clear after a July 3 auto accident at Lake Price Drive and Tanner Road. In a follow-up letter to Syl Lafata, president of the homeowners association, acting Orange County Fire and Rescue Capt. Matt McGrew wrote that a rescue squad had to "slow to approximately 15 mph to negotiate safely through this area."

He continued: "I can say that the route taken to the hospital, although possibly longer, was determined specifically to avoid traveling back over those nine speed bumps. In summary, I can conclude that these speed bumps, although not completely hindering us from providing our service, do affect our response times and travel considerations when servicing this area."

In Berkeley, the fire department joined with disabled groups, and in 1995, the city imposed a moratorium on humps. But officially, Orange County Fire and Rescue doesn't see a problem, at least not one worth fighting over. "These traffic devices are going up all around Orange County," says district chief Tammy Wunderly. "It's something we're going to have to adapt to. Whether that's a danger to the situation, that's not our call. It's not something we're going to take a stand on."

Her concern might increase if she read the 259-page master's thesis recently written by Austin, Texas, Assistant Fire Chief Les Bunte. In "Traffic Calming Programs and Emergency Response: A Competition of Two Public Goods," the 27-year firefighting veteran makes a startling observation.

Using a detailed formula developed by Boulder, Colo., scientist Ray Bowman, Bunte determined that in Austin, at least 37 people would die because of slower emergency-response time for every one life saved by slower traffic. Since Bunte took into account only deaths from sudden cardiac arrest -- and not from delayed fire response or any other condition -- that number could be higher.

Furthermore, Bunte points out that most pedestrian deaths don't occur on residential streets. They occur near busy intersections, and many times involve drunk pedestrians. "Often the traffic danger within a neighborhood," Bunte writes, "is generally a perceived danger [Bunte's italics] by the residents, rather than an established one. Residents often convey an exaggerated depiction of the problem."


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