Traffic Calming vs. Safety

Traffic calming is heralded by some city planners as the wave of the future. Concerned citizens demand slower traffic, fewer large vehicles on their streets, limited access to streets where children play. In response, municipalities put up stop signs, build speed bumps and road barriers, and reduce traffic lanes on busy streets.

But traffic calming is a controversial and highly charged political issue. Vital public services such as fire, ambulance, police, snow clearing and public transit are affected. So are local businesses and the silent majority of road users.

To plan and implement traffic calming measures is expensive. Yet, their effectiveness in the Canadian environment is mixed, and their repercussions have not been seriously studied. Often they are installed as a quick fix in response to political pressure, when other safety alternatives would be more effective.

Context is Important

Proponents cite studies from Australia and Europe. Canadian infrastructure, climate and transportation needs are quite different from these countries. In Canada, snow clearing and icing are critical issues. Public transit needs are different. Canadians travel relatively long distances on a regular basis.

The studies do not factor in the effects of proven countermeasures, such as photo-radar, red light cameras and strict sobriety checks, more widespread in those countries than in Canada. Nor do they consider the impact of traffic policing.

Stop Signs Become Meaningless

Stop signs were designed to control right-of-way. By law, all vehicles, including bicycles, must come to a full stop before proceeding.

But stop signs are wrongly used to slow traffic in many Canadian cities. Rolling "stops" has become a common practice for many drivers. Worse, some drive right through without heeding the signs at all. More and more, as stop signs proliferate on side streets, cyclists assume the signs do not apply to them. All this sets a very bad example for children, who grow up knowing that adults do not stop at stop signs.

Safety experts and educators fear so much harm has been done, that respect for the stop sign as a traffic control device is disappearing.

When Every Second Counts...

In one minute, a fast-burning fire can destroy a building. One minute can be the window of opportunity for a critically injured child, heart attack victim or other emergency. A criminal can escape the scene of a crime in less than a minute. For fire, ambulance and police vehicles, every second counts.

A delay of just one minute due to speed bumps or congestion on narrowed roads can mean the difference between life and death. Inefficient traffic flow on an access route to a hospital puts lives at stake. Snow clearing problems associated with blocked-off streets and other traffic calming obstructions will increase delays in winter, when many home fires and medical emergencies occur. Liability issues associated with traffic calming are hardly ever considered.

Encourage Safe Behaviour

In our fast-paced society, slow traffic aggravates drivers. Those who have a deadline to meet - such as busy parents transporting children - are spurred to take chances.

Removing lanes and turning the road into an obstacle course creates frustration, leading to dangerous moving violations. Frustrated motorists make dangerous turns or run red lights. Drivers swerve around speed bumps into bicycle lanes to avoid damage to their vehicle.

Some parents want to block off streets so their children can play on them. The flaw in this reasoning is that children should not be playing on the street in the first place. Safe play areas away from traffic and easily accessible to local communities are a much better solution. Correct the fallacy, don't legitimize it!

If safety is truly the goal, combine public safety education with an infrastructure that respects normal human behaviour.

Clogged Traffic, Clogged Air

Traffic congestion increases fuel consumption and release of harmful emissions, such as carbon dioxide, suspended particulates and other noxious air pollutants. According to Natural Resources Canada, if every Canadian motorist avoided idling their vehicle for just five minutes per day, more than 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 would be spared from entering the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. Stop-and-go traffic creates an environmental impact that takes a toll on health and quality of life.

Ripple Effects

Speed bumps and lane obstructions impede snow clearing - an important issue in Canada. They also slow buses, requiring more fuel and causing potential scheduling problems. Increased maintenance to vehicles and roads (including repair of the calming structures themselves) means significant unforeseen costs.

Speed bumps cause damage to vehicles whether or not they are speeding. Private, law-abiding vehicle owners must bear the expense of added repairs due to wear and tear from going over the bumps.

Businesses - especially retailers and restaurants - do not want to see their ever-increasing taxes used to prevent customers from reaching them. Efficient traffic flow is critical to the local economy.

Studies on traffic calming show reductions in traffic volume and speeds plus moderate crash reductions. However, they do not assess to what extent traffic, speeding and collisions were diverted to other residential streets or added to roads already congested. Care must be taken to solve problems, not just shift them.

A Cop-Out?

The stated purpose of traffic calming is to deter speeding. Some advocates admit they push for these measures because they are frustrated by a lack of enforcement.

Traffic enforcement is the key underlying issue. Resources must be provided for improved enforcement:

  • Police must be visible and active in problem areas. A firm, dynamic policy backed by the entire police force is the minimum requirement. Some of the cost will be recouped in fines. Increased traffic enforcement enables police to apprehend persons wanted on other charges, because many traffic violators are chronic offenders.
  • Electronic enforcement tools such as photo-radar and red light cameras have proven their worth in many jurisdictions. Their cost is more than recovered from fines - which penalize offenders, not the general population.

Research shows that perception of apprehension is a very effective deterrent. If people believe there is a high probability of being caught, they are far less likely to offend. This includes traffic violations as well as criminal acts. Visible, effective enforcement has been proven beyond a doubt to reduce speeding.

To deter speeding, set realistic speed limits and enforce them strictly. Most people will comply.

Spend Wisely to Improve Safety

To use taxes for the greatest public benefit, local governments need an integrated plan for traffic safety that takes into account the community as a whole.

Building obstacles to impede traffic is a sheer waste of taxpayers' money. The Canada Safety Council urges municipalities to invest instead in proven safety measures.

  • Resources for traffic enforcement in many communities have diminished to the point of being inadequate. Preventive traffic enforcement must become the number one priority.
  • Instead of turning streets into playgrounds, develop recreational grounds and facilities where children can play safely, away from traffic.
  • Address specific traffic problems with intelligent, cost effective solutions that will not compromise safety or penalize law-abiding citizens. (e.g. yield signs, turning and parking restrictions, traffic signal timing, illumination)
  • Invest in public education to change perceptions, behaviours and attitudes that lead to collisions.