A Safer Street for My Kids? If Only

Two years ago, a new family moved into our Washington, D.C., suburban neighborhood and were surprised by all the traffic on our street. With little kids, they looked for traffic-calming options from our county.

A mom myself, I was intrigued to find out more myself, so I attended the community meeting.

But our options, we quickly learned, were limited. Blinking speed signs, 2-way stop signs and cross walks were not possible because of funding or visibility regulations. The only option for us was the installation on our street of a single speed hump — a gradually-raised surface three to six inches off the ground. Normally made of asphalt, these humps are placed across the entire road in high-traffic areas to slow the speed of vehicles. (A speed bump, by the way, is much smaller. They are two different entities.)

I was skeptical about what a single speed hump could do on my street — but I couldn’t find any information on the merits or pitfalls of these things, especially the affects they might have on homes such as ours that lie directly across from a speed hump.

We agreed to move forward on this traffic fix, however, believing something was better than nothing. Usually this is a valid sensibility, but I still had my doubts about the plan for a number of reasons sketched out below.

If you need to consider this option for your street, here's what you need to know before embracing such a plan.

1.) Ensure Your Street is Wide Enough.
Our neighborhood street is very narrow, with a sidewalk on only one side and no street parking at all. Since those requirements primarily focus on driver safety, this didn't pose any eligibility red flags, such as, Would drivers be able to see it in time? Would it be too close to an intersection?

But on a narrow street, passing cars are in close proximity to the homes. Once a speed hump is added, fast drivers can pose significant hazards. In less than two years, neighbors closest to our block's speed hump have seen cars stranded on their lawns and vehicle axles break — though fortunately, none have hit other cars or neighbors.

When commercial trucks drive over the humps, pieces of asphalt that have accumulated from other cars or from the sheer weight of the big truck go flying. One piece recently broke my living room window. If children or adults had been nearby, they could have been struck, too.

Vehicle debris, such as hub caps, are commonplace litter even during mild weather. During harsh weather conditions, neighbors have seen the beams from headlights stream into their dining room windows during dinner — cars had completely turned themselves around because the speed hump wasn’t visible in the snow.

2.) Count the Heavy Trucks or Commercial Vehicles that Regularly Drive By.
Most speed humps must be at least three inches in height. While car-protecting motorists will brake right before a speed hump in order to prevent damage, commercial vehicle drivers typically won’t bother. Heavy trucks speeding over the hump causes disruptive rattling and shaking throughout the house. With one truck a day, a home tremor may not be a concern — but with multiple trucks every hour, this rumbling chaos will quickly grow old, especially if you work from home or if your children are trying to sleep.

3.) Understand the Time Commitment Involved.
In less than two years, our speed hump was installed and reinstalled three times. The first was the initial installation. The second happened because of a scheduled repaving of the street. The third occurred after a neighbor complained that the second installation seemed lower than the original — so the hump was rebuilt for a third time to meet the regulation height.

These reinstallations meant that county trucks, signage and street painting vehicles blocked our driveways, since no street parking was available. While the truck drivers were always agreeable about moving out of the way, the wasted time and hassle was a disruption when rushing to work or taking the kids to school.

4.) Anticipate the Emotions Involved If You Need to Reverse Course.
Should your neighbors regret the decision, the process for removal will likely become an upward battle and an exhausting endeavor. Some homeowners may believe the speed hump must stay for the greater good of the neighborhood. Neighbors living further down the block may dismiss hazards incurred by those closest to the hump — so this could become a debate about which children should be protected.

The perceived safety of the hump vs. the realities of its unsafe factors may never be settled.

Are all speed humps bad? No. They've repeatedly been shown, actually, to reduce speeds in several situations. But speed data alone does not embrace livability issues or safety hazards, nor does it account for the majority of motorists who go just as fast before the hump, quickly brake to go over the hump —then rev their engines right after to make up for their lost time.

Does all of this seem like a narrow concern, an isolated incident, a remote worry? Not if this issue is in your neighborhood or on your street!

Do your due diligence if you encounter this issue. Your family, believe me, will thank you.

Karen Scott is a working mom in Northern Virginia.

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