28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XV

Drivers need a lot of time to make decisions.

A few years ago, the the city of Seattle decided to renovate its underground transit tunnels, a process which would take at least two years, during which the tunnels had to be shut down, re-routing all bus lines to alternate above-ground routes.

Not surprisingly, the long-term detour packed the downtown area’s already stuffy roads with more buses than city planners originally had in mind. To alleviate the sudden wave of these giant wheeled monsters, certain city blocks were now off-limits to all personal vehicles during peak hours–6am to 9am and 3pm to 6pm on weekdays.

This was a wonderful solution for the majority of traffic concerns at a time when narrow, busy roads suddenly doubled in traffic at the busiest times of the day. However, the implementation of the signs warning drivers when the roads were and weren’t available, along with the way the system was enforced, created an entirely new problem.

White backlit boxes, the same kind used to inform drivers which lanes can turn left and whether U-turns are acceptable in an intersection, were hung near the traffic lights at every block, stating that the roads were closed to private traffic during peak hours, which were listed clearly on each sign. To anyone not a frequent traveler of these downtown blocks, these small, nondescript signs were all drivers had to determine when and where they were allowed to drive.

A central hub of transit, connecting several major freeways and less common but equally important inner-city highways, Seattle has dealt with a similar problem before, on a much larger scale, with great success–a triumph that would suggest the same city could pull it off on this smaller scale with the same results.

I’m talking about the expressways which help motorists living outside of town travel to and from work each day. These expressways are only large enough to allow one direction of traffic at a time, and are open to inbound cars in the morning and outward cars at night.

How do drivers know when taking the expressway won’t lead them head-on into a vehicle going the other way? A series of arms, much like those found at tollbooths and drawbridges, close off entrances when it’s not safe to enter. This obviously can’t be implemented with the downtown traffic, as the arms would be blocking the buses from taking the roads as well, but another effective signal is used on the expressways, and would have greatly improved the conditions of the downtown detour routes: big neon signs placed well before the closed-off street, with the words “EXPRESSWAY CLOSED” lit up only when the statement was true, made for an unmistakable signal that the motorist’s options were limited long before actually reaching the point in question.

Why the city didn’t use this tactic downtown is beyond me. As it was, unprepared drivers would have to notice these signs, legible no more than half a block away, register their meaning, and figure out whether the streets were open or a sudden turn onto a different street was in order. This required drivers to find a clock (usually there’s one somewhere on the instrument panel or stereo, if it’s working and properly set), and figure out whether the streets were open or closed. Essentially, drivers were forced to do math while behind the wheel. Drivers should never be expected to handle numbers while driving, regardless of how simple it seems under other circumstances.

On top of that, some perpendicular streets were one-way, forcing last-minute lane changes in order to exit the closed streets.

If that wasn’t enough (and believe me, it was), police were dispatched to each one of these streets during peak hours to issue rather hefty tickets to those who broke this rule, no doubt earning a good deal off those unfortunate drivers caught off guard by the city’s lack of sufficient signs. And not only did they nab motorists, but pedestrians now had more to worry about than passing cars: police waiting to cite drivers also began ticketing jaywalkers much more frequently than before.

Now that the renovations are complete, the mess above ground should be more or less cleared up. The city has decided to keep one street closed to cars during these hours, and I hope the signage has improved. I’ll see when I visit Seattle next week.

The last thing a driver should be expected to do is make sudden decisions with little warning ahead of time. Washington state already outlawed talk on mobile phones while driving, based on the understood limitations of the human attention span; Seattle had no reason to drop the ball on this one. I might go so far as to suggest the entire situation was planned to increase ticket revenue, or at least wasn’t fixed because of the money it pulled in. Nevertheless, in the interest of safety and clarification, drivers should always be given ample time to make decisions, and a simple Yes or No is much more effective than making drivers do the work on their own.


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