Putting stop to cyclists, walkers getting short shrift

March 22, 2010|By Michael Dresser Getting there

It didn't get much media attention outside bicycle-enthusiast circles, but last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made what might have been one of the most important policy shifts to come out of his department in decades.

Upending years of federal transportation policy, LaHood declared that henceforth bicycles and the human foot would be elevated to parity with motor vehicles.

Calling the new policy "a sea change," LaHood announced: "People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."

To see what LaHood means, all you have to do is drive along any major U.S. highway - except interstates, from which bikes and walkers are banned entirely - and imagine trying to use it on a bicycle or on foot. Yup, the word "deathtrap" isn't too strong.

It remains to be seen whether the long-standing bias in favor of the internal combustion engine will change because of a policy pronouncement from the secretary. It won't count for much if it isn't backed up by dollars and cents.

But LaHood sounded as if he means business, saying the department will discourage transportation investments that disadvantage bicyclists and walkers and encourage those that aid them. He said the federal government will urge state departments of transportation to "treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes."

I wouldn't read this as saying the feds will match highway expenditures with bike spending dollar for dollar, but the next time someone proposes a road such as Maryland's Inter-county Connector, a bike path alongside might help its chances of approval.

You can read LaHood's full statement at his blog: http://fastlane.dot.gov/. Scroll down to the March 15 entry.

Thanks to the Greater Greater Washington blog for spotting this news, which most mainstream news outlets overlooked.

Rural speed limits rise
Virginia recently became the 34th state to raise its rural interstate speed limit to 70 mph - part of a trend that has traditional safety advocates concerned.

They shouldn't be. The battle over whether the speed limit should be 65 mph or 70 mph on our best roads in noncongested areas is not worth the fight. Most drivers are hovering around 70 mph on these roads now, and as long as weather conditions are good, what's the problem?

That isn't to say speed isn't a serious issue. It's deadly serious. In some ways, speed is more of a threat than drunken driving because at least we've achieved a fundamental consensus that drunken driving is not something to be winked at. There are still far too many apologists for excess speed.

But the problem isn't people doing 70 on rural interstates. Much more dangerous is the person screeching along a city street lined with pedestrians at 45 mph in a 25 mph zone. Or the teen who tries to take a curve on a wet two-lane country road at 50. Or the speed addicts on the interstates for whom 79 mph isn't fast enough.

The nation's drivers - and by extension their lawmakers - have long been indulgent toward our fellows who cheat on the speed limit by a little. Our speed cameras give a 12-mph cushion over the speed limit, a rough approximation of the zone of tolerance extended by police officers. Since nobody's likely to get a ticket for prudently driving 70 mph in a 65 mph zone anyway, why stigmatize it as illegal?

There is really no excuse for going above 80 on any road in Maryland. This isn't Texas, with its flat, endless plains. These aren't the Dakotas, with their meager populations. Rather than nitpick about whether someone is going 65 or 70 on Interstate 70 west of Frederick, it would make sense to focus the wrath of the traffic law on the super-speeders who go 80, 85, 90 or more.

State law already provides some hefty fines for these folks, but all too often enablers in judicial robes make a mockery of those laws. Why not do as Virginia does and classify speeding 20 mph or more above the posted limit as reckless driving? Why not rule out probation before judgment for speeds exceeding 80? Why not arrest on the spot anyone found to be going more than 100 mph? A street racer is at least as dangerous as some pitiful drunk trying to crawl home at 35 mph.

If anyone wants to raise the 65 mph limit to 70 mph on I-70 or Interstate 68 or parts of Interstate 95, safety advocates shouldn't flatly rule that out. They should just make sure they get something in return - like a crackdown on extreme speeders, whether on the interstates or residential streets.

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