Making roads safer: it’s complicated

By Lau­ra Mason | UConn Jour­nal­ism
Oct. 30, 2022 

STORRS, Conn. — It was the end of August 2022 and cars were whip­ping by Lisa’s Choco­lates and Gifts on Route 195 in Mans­field again. 

Fol­low­ing ren­o­va­tions at Mans­field Ele­men­tary School and the sub­se­quent removal of a traf­fic island, the widened road now allowed cars to accel­er­ate into the cen­ter of Mans­field with less regard for speed limits. 

It’s like an express way out here!” an employ­ee at Lisa’s Choco­lates and Gifts said dur­ing a phone inter­view, “I’ve almost been run off the road three times” with­in the past month. 

While the road ren­o­va­tions height­ened the prob­lem, she explained that speed­ing on all main roads in Mans­field was a major issue, sar­cas­ti­cal­ly say­ing, “well, nobody’s been run over recent­ly” when asked if roads were safe for pedestrians. 

In response, Mans­field Traf­fic Author­i­ty unan­i­mous­ly vot­ed to request Route 195’s speed lim­it be low­ered to 30 mph where it inter­sects Route 89 and Browns Road; just 500 feet from Lisa’s Choco­lates and Gifts. 

Their deci­sion, made with­out inves­ti­ga­tion dur­ing a recent spe­cial meet­ing, grew out of a com­plaint from two local res­i­dents about pedes­tri­an safe­ty and comes as the num­ber of pedes­tri­an-vehi­cle acci­dents con­tin­ues to steadi­ly rise in Connecticut. 

Cur­rent­ly, Browns Road and Route 89 both have 30 mph speed lim­its, while Route 195 has a 40 mph speed lim­it. How­ev­er, local traf­fic cam­eras show that speeds vary between 44 mph and 50 mph in the area. 

Since Route 195 is a state high­way, the traf­fic authority’s request was sent to the Office of the State Traf­fic Admin­is­tra­tion (OSTA) to be processed and considered. 

While this par­tic­u­lar inter­sec­tion has expe­ri­enced rel­a­tive­ly few crash­es, Mans­field has seen 116 total inter­sec­tion crash­es since August 2021, includ­ing a fatal pedes­tri­an acci­dent in Novem­ber of the same year, accord­ing to the Con­necti­cut Crash Data Repository. 

Only one week before the traf­fic authority’s deci­sion, a Mans­field pedes­tri­an and state troop­er were severe­ly injured after they were struck by an intox­i­cat­ed dri­ver at the inter­sec­tion of Route 44 and Stafford Road, accord­ing to NBC Connecticut. 

This acci­dent; about 7 miles from the inter­sec­tion of Route 89, Route 195, and Browns Road; is 1 of 470 vehi­cle acci­dents in Mans­field over the last year. This num­ber rep­re­sents a 44.6% increase in acci­dents from the year pri­or, accord­ing to the Con­necti­cut Crash Data Repository. 

This pat­tern echoes across the coun­try. Research by the Insur­ance Insti­tute for High­way Safe­ty found that the num­ber of pedes­tri­an deaths each year has increased by more than 2,400 since 2009. 

How­ev­er, while Mansfield’s deci­sion to low­er Route 195’s speed lim­it could min­i­mal­ly improve inter­sec­tion con­di­tions, their deci­sion con­flicts with the state’s rec­om­men­da­tions for pedes­tri­an safety. 

In 2019, the Con­necti­cut Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (CTDOT) released the Pedes­tri­an Safe­ty Guide; a doc­u­ment designed to edu­cate towns on data-sup­port­ed strate­gies to reduce pedes­tri­an deaths. 

The guide, which high­light­ed edu­ca­tion, enforce­ment, and engi­neer­ing strate­gies, stat­ed that all meth­ods vary in effec­tive­ness and often must be tai­lored to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, but edu­ca­tion pro­grams were the most effec­tive for long-term solutions. 

Specif­i­cal­ly, the CTDOT report­ed that edu­ca­tion pro­grams tar­get­ed toward pedes­tri­ans, rather than dri­vers, were most effec­tive in sav­ing lives. 

A study by the CTDOT found that, while dri­ver rights are often known, 78.6% of cit­i­zens are unaware of their rights as pedes­tri­ans and have mis­used cross­walks or pedes­tri­an sig­nals, increas­ing the chance of pedes­tri­an-vehi­cle accidents. 

By uti­liz­ing edu­ca­tion pro­grams, the depart­ment saw as much as a 17% improve­ment in atti­tudes toward road safe­ty by res­i­dents age 12 to 25; the group most at risk for pedes­tri­an-vehi­cle accidents. 

When applied to a larg­er scale, results were sim­i­lar­ly opti­mistic with pedes­tri­an injuries reduced by 36% in Colum­bus, Ohio after imple­ment­ing an edu­ca­tion pro­gram, accord­ing to the Fed­er­al High­way Admin­is­tra­tion (FHWA).   

Alter­na­tive­ly, when low­er­ing speed lim­its, results were only sig­nif­i­cant when dropped to 20 mph or below. In addi­tion, the FHWA found that low­er­ing speed lim­its only increased speed vio­la­tions, rather than chang­ing dri­ver patterns. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, Mans­field Pub­lic Works admit­ted that, even if the request to low­er Route 195’s speed lim­it was approved, it would like­ly cause min­i­mal change to local road safe­ty. Rather, low­er­ing speeds could increase the chance of acci­dents by dis­rupt­ing the nat­ur­al flow of traffic. 

When asked why the traf­fic author­i­ty still chose to request the speed lim­it low­ered, as opposed to oth­er pos­si­ble solu­tions, Mans­field Town Garage Oper­a­tions Man­ag­er Bri­an LaVoie explained that the town had lit­tle con­trol over state high­ways, but want­ed res­i­dents’ opin­ions to be heard. 

We are the voice of the res­i­dents,” he said dur­ing a phone inter­view, when res­i­dents feel unsafe on their roads, “we do not ignore citizens.” 

LaVoie, the mem­ber to ini­tial­ly call for the request to be sent, high­light­ed the need for gov­ern­ment bod­ies to lis­ten to res­i­dents, stat­ing that he was “always the first to make a motion” when a res­i­dent brought up a safe­ty con­cern, despite admit­ting that the request like­ly will not be approved. 

In response, CT Trans­porta­tion Safe­ty Research Cen­ter Direc­tor Eric Jack­son called the deci­sion, “a very low-cost coun­ter­mea­sure,” and stat­ed that “chang­ing a [speed lim­it] sign has no real impact on vehi­cle speeds” unless enforced. 

In most cir­cum­stances it comes down to mon­ey, time, and main­te­nance.” Jack­son said, explain­ing that towns uti­lize this method to reduce costs and sat­is­fy residents. 

Fur­ther­more, the approach is not uncom­mon. Sev­er­al Con­necti­cut towns have fol­lowed sim­i­lar tech­niques; imple­ment­ing engi­neer­ing or enforce­ment strate­gies rather than uti­liz­ing edu­ca­tion pro­grams to pro­tect pedestrians. 

Each town has seen var­ied results. Enfield, a town which pri­mar­i­ly uti­lizes enforce­ment, has seen a con­sis­tent­ly high num­ber of acci­dents and expe­ri­enced pedes­tri­an deaths as recent­ly as March 2022 when a 14-year-old high school stu­dent was struck by a dis­tract­ed dri­ver, accord­ing to the Jour­nal Inquirer. 

Alter­na­tive­ly, Wood­bury, which focus­es on engi­neer­ing solu­tions, has seen a 28.2% decrease with only 334 acci­dents between 2020 and 2022 com­pared to 465 acci­dents between 2012 and 2014, accord­ing the Con­necti­cut Crash Data Repository. 

Ulti­mate­ly, while effec­tive strate­gies have been pro­posed to reduce pedes­tri­an deaths, many Con­necti­cut towns have neglect­ed these rec­om­men­da­tions. For these towns, safe­ty pre­cau­tions remain a sig­nif­i­cant con­cern yet, whether left out­side of their con­trol or sim­ply not pri­or­i­tized, alter­na­tive meth­ods were implemented. 

Lau­ra Mason is a UConn Jour­nal­ism major who report­ed this sto­ry for the Fall 2022 course, Pub­lic Affairs Report­ing.

TOP IMAGE: Route 195 in Storrs, Con­necti­cut. (Pho­to by Gail MacDonald)