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Your green light to talk traffic
The Times' Charles E. Brown shares your traffic-related concerns. Have a question or a comment?
E-mail Bumper@seattletimes.com
Bumper to Bumper questions and answers also appear Mondays in The Times' Local section.

September 28, 2007

Who has the last word?

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 4:20 PM

Q: An Everett woman " let's just identify her by the initials R.T. — wants the word to get around about a traffic frustration: school zone speed limits.

"I was given a ticket for going 30 (mph) in a school zone," she confessed. "The sign said 20 when children are present. Well, there weren't any children present. I contested it, but according to the judge, it doesn't matter if there are children present.

"Upon investigation, I have found that the law states that one must go 20 when within 300 feet of a school, whether or not there are children present. So that makes all those signs fraudulent."

R.T. says a co-worker had a similar experience in a construction zone. "He wasn't going the posted slower speed since it was a Sunday and no one was working. The sign had said 30 when construction workers are present. He was pulled over and given a ticket as well."

A: This column has reported before the state law (RCW 46.61.440) that specifies 20 mph in a school zone. But the issue may not be so cut and dry.

School districts have jurisdiction over the posted signs in their district. And signs can say different things in different jurisdictions. Yes, some specify "when children are present." Some say "when lights are flashing." Some specify certain hours of the day.

To his knowledge, there's not a national standard for school speed limits, said Brian Jones of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. "The state's preference is to have all districts install flashing lights with signs for 20 miles when flashing," he said. So over the past 18 months or so, school districts have been receiving state grant money for new speed signs and lighting in school zones.

But uniformity is not a done deal. And as R.T. can attest, when it comes to interpretation of the law, courts still have the last word.

Tunnel vision

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 11:47 AM

Q: What's with those bright white lights blinking on buses inside the downtown bus tunnel? Seattle resident Henry Szymonik, who has returned to the renovated and reopened bus tunnel, says they seem like overkill.

Metro Transit says those lights, strobes attached to the side-view mirrors of buses, are a warning for waiting passengers in the tunnel to stay back from the curb, behind the yellow stripe, so they won't be hit by the mirror of an approaching bus. That's a safety concern because the tunnel floor has been lowered eight inches, so the boarding platforms will match the height of a new generation of low-floor buses and future light rail trains. But the lowering also brings the mirrors down to head levels.

Szymonik thinks those strobes are too white, and too bright. "Why do the new lights need to be so bright, and why do they need to flash so rapidly?" he asked. "Having to see those bright, rapidly flashing lights as I was watching for my bus hurt my eyes," he said. "I actually kept seeing lights an hour later."

It seems, he said, that low-level red LED lights would be sufficient to accent the side mirrors, and would provide better contrast to the bright white headlights.

A: The reason the strobe lights on the side mirrors are so white and so bright is so they will be highly visible to passengers waiting on the platform inside the tunnel, says Mike Lemeshko, supervisor of Metro's transit safety unit.

The strobes are an extra safety measure to make sure customers are aware of the position of the mirrors as the buses move along the platform. Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke said the agency wanted to make sure that passengers who might have their backs to the platform and the moving buses would be aware of the mirrors, and that is why the lights flash.

It's true. Someone could be injured if struck by a mirror. "But there's that potential at any other bus stop, too, depending on your height," Lemeshko said.
Yellow safety stripes intended to keep people away from the curb have been used in other places, he said. The speed limit for buses as they approach and leave tunnel stations has been lowered from 15 mph to 10 mph. That way, drivers should be able to honk their horns and stop the bus if necessary, Lemeshko said.

The mirror lights are set at low strobe, between one and three flashes per second, "and they shouldn't blind anybody," he said. When buses stop, the strobe goes off automatically. Then it restarts automatically when the coach doors are closed and the bus reaches 15 mph.

Metro had considered using amber lights, Lemeshko said, "but we found that they blended with other marker lights on the buses." The agency wants the mirror lights to stand out, and doesn't figure the solid headlights and flashing mirror strobes should be confusing.

"We're evaluating it as we go along to see how effective it is," he said. "It's a work in progress." But so far, there are no plans to change the lights.

September 26, 2007

This state really buckles up

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 6:32 PM

Washington continues to be a national leader in seat belt use, according to a recent survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, seat belt use among drivers in this state is higher this year than it was last year, said the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Last year, the state commission estimated about 96.3 percent of drivers across the state used their seat belts. This year, the figure inched to 96.4 percent.

Last year's figure was the highest in the nation, said state commission spokeswoman Jonna VanDyk.

Seat belt use nationwide was 81 percent in 2006, as measured by NHTSA's National Occupant Protection Use Survey. A nationwide observational research survey of seat belt use is conducted annually by the NHTSA.

This year's Washington survey, conducted in July, included 100,532 vehicle drivers and passengers on a variety of road types following research guidelines established by the NHTSA.

So why is usage so high here?

"You can't really know for sure," VanDyk said. But she speculates this state's primary seat belt law, stiff fines for not being buckled up, active patrol and enforcement, and an aggressive statewide public information campaign may be factors.

"We have all four, and we're working all four all the time," she said.

In June 2002, when Washington's primary seat belt law went into effect, about 82 percent of drivers wore seat belts. The primary seat-belt law gives officers authority to pull over unbuckled motorists. Since the adoption of the law and the launch of "Click it or Ticket" crackdowns, seat belt use has climbed steadily, said VanDyk.

Studies show that seat belts reduce serious injuries from crashes by 69 percent, and deaths by 45 percent, according to the commission.

In May, local law enforcement agencies announced nighttime patrols would be added to the statewide "Click it or Ticket" crackdown on unbuckled motorists. The Traffic Safety Commission said the nighttime death rate was four times what it was during the day because seat-belt use was lower, perhaps partly because many folks figured police couldn't see unbuckled motorists at night.

Studies conducted in Washington indicated that medical costs from collisions amount to more than $276 million each year. An unbelted vehicle occupant's medical costs average $11,000 more per collision than those of a belted vehicle occupant's, says the state commission.

Other states with high seat belt use include Oregon and Michigan. Seat belt use was lowest, according to the survey, in Wyoming and New Hampshire. VanDyk said Western states generally tended to rate higher than others parts of the country.

September 21, 2007

The weekend express

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 11:14 AM

Q: There was a lot of talk about how traffic seemed to be better than usual last month during the Interstate 5 construction project through downtown Seattle, even though there were multiple-lane closures. Lake Forest Park resident Darlene Beckley figures much of the congestion that was lessened on weekends was because motorists discovered that the express lanes were open to southbound traffic all day rather than reversed for northbound traffic in the afternoon.

"It seems that there is always a backup on southbound I-5 on the weekend, and that there is more traffic getting backed up because of the Highway 520 merge, as well as weekend sporting activities," she said. "Yet, northbound seems free and clear and people going south in the afternoon are going five miles an hour, watching the 10 cars on the express lanes going north pass them by."

Has there been any consideration given to keeping the express lanes open for southbound traffic later in the day on weekends?

A: The state Department of Transportation says keeping the express lanes open to southbound traffic all day seemed to make sense because the construction project not only reduced the number of northbound lanes, but also the amount of northbound traffic.

However, weekend freeway traffic volumes in both directions through Seattle are typically more balanced, said transportation department freeway operations engineer Vinh Dang. As a result, traffic seems to flow smoothly in the direction that the express lanes are running and traffic slows in the opposite direction, mainly because weekend daytime traffic volumes in both directions have simply outgrown the freeway, he said.

"We are analyzing the traffic data we gathered during the recent I-5 construction, and will use the information to help determine whether a revised I-5 express lane schedule could help move traffic more efficiently." he said. "We will keep in mind that what's good for traffic in one direction may have a significant affect on traffic in the opposite direction."

During the construction period, it wouldn't have helped to reverse the express lanes on weekends anyway because the first northbound express lanes entrance downtown, near Cherry Street, is north of where construction crews were working.

September 20, 2007

Seeing eye-to-eye

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 5:59 PM

Q: A Kent woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, says she and her husband don't see eye-to-eye on use of Highway 99's recently completed carpool lanes in the Federal Way area. Those lanes are outside lanes, and anyone can use them for right turns, such as turning into strip malls and other businesses or at intersections.

The problem, says she, is that when using the middle lane as a solo driver to travel south and then needing to move into the carpool lane for a right turn, she's encountered vehicles approaching fast from behind in the carpool lane. And that makes it hard for her to move into that lane. "This has happened several times," she said.

Such was the case a few days ago. "Whether the vehicle (in the carpool lane) was going over the speed limit, I do not know," she said, but on that occasion she missed her turn into a mall at South 272nd Street. "This was because I gunned my engine after changing lanes to keep ahead of the driver, and could not make the turn in time." Meanwhile, the other driver switched to the middle lane and continued south.

But here's her husband's take: He says drivers have the right to go faster in the carpool lane than traffic in the middle lane, and that should be expected when the middle lane is moving slower because of more traffic.

"I feel drivers in the carpool lane should expect others to move into the lane to make turns," she said, "and this expectation would result in their either driving slower or slowing down to allow mergers into their lane.

"I remarked that the right lane should have a slower speed posted for it, as this lane is now a dedicated and restricted-use lane. But my husband says you cannot do that. One speed for all."

Why can't an outside carpool lane in a commercial district be posted 5 to 10 miles slower? She also wants to know if she should risk moving into the carpool lane earlier, even when she's driving alone? Or should there be signs posted warning carpool drivers to anticipate others moving into the lane to make right turns?

A: For starters, the posted speed limit is indeed the speed, even for the carpool lane. There aren't different speed limits for different lanes of a road because it would be too confusing to drivers, and difficult, if not impossible, to enforce, says Leslie Forbis, the state transportation department's HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) operations engineer.

Drivers in the carpool lane should use caution and slow down when general-purpose lanes are heavily congested, Forbis said. And, too, carpool lane drivers should always be alert for vehicles merging into the carpool lane to make right turns.

State law has no maximum distance a driver can be in the carpool lane before making a right turn. But in the city of Federal Way, lone drivers can be ticketed for using the carpool lane to go through an intersection with a signal.

Other jurisdictions may have different interpretations of how long a lone driver can use a carpool lane, Forbis notes. As a general rule, she said, drivers should move into the carpool lane in enough time to slow down and safely make their right turn.

But keep in mind, she added, that drivers can be ticketed for unsafe driving even when they are traveling at the posted speed limit.

September 14, 2007

Tales from the tunnel

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 5:10 AM

Q: When the downtown bus tunnel reopens Sept. 24, some of the bus routes that surfaced during the tunnel's two-year closure (to be retrofitted for light rail) will not go back underground.

Times staffer Ranny Green says he and a number of Route 177 commuters are trying to figure out why their bus, which runs between downtown Seattle and Federal Way's South 320th Street park-and-ride lot, is not slated to go back into the tunnel. "We had used it before and this bus runs virtually full on most runs," he said.

"I cannot think of one good reason why we should still be stuck on Second Avenue each night while many of the other routes miss all the downtown street mess and get out of town more quickly."

Route 177 runs at peak hours morning and evening, so riders can't understand why it is not at the top of the list to return to the tunnel.

"All of the riders on the 177s I ride coming in and going back are furious about this Metro decision," said Green.

A: Route 177 riders are not the only ones likely to be disappointed when the tunnel reopens. At least five other routes — 190, 196, 266, 306 and 312 — will not return to the tunnel, either. They will continue operating on the same surface streets through downtown Seattle as they do now.

Metro Transit spokeswoman Linda Thielke says one reason the 177, 190, 196 and 266 weren't selected to return to the tunnel is that they don't always need the large 60-foot hybrid articulated coaches to accommodate their ridership, and those are the only types of buses that can be used in the tunnel, because they can be switched from diesel to electricity.

Also, says she, Metro is trying to group routes with common destinations together so that passengers have options at the same bus stops. The 177, 190 and 196 all serve the Federal Way area, so Metro planners grouped them together.

The 306 and 312 were left on the surface because they operate in conjunction with Sound Transit's Route 522, and Metro says putting the three together offers a much higher level of service for riders.

"We know 177 riders are upset, but not every trip throughout the day operates with the volume of riders that fills a hybrid bus," said Thielke.

Three routes that were not in the tunnel before — the 74 express, the 174 and the morning 217 runs — will be new to the tunnel. So, for now, there'll be 18 routes using the tunnel.

September 13, 2007

Traffic chatter

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 5:55 PM

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, there were 744,188 calls to the state Department of Transportation's 511 travel-information phone line. Most, 84 percent, were made during the winter months when drivers were checking on mountain-pass information.

In January, the DOT upgraded its computer system, and the 511 system now can handle 192 simultaneous calls, an increase of 37 percent over its previous capacity.

September 12, 2007

When is a left not right?

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 1:48 PM

Q: Former Seattle resident Jerry Hawley, who now makes his home on sunny Southern California's Coronado Island, has come up with what he thinks is a good idea for solving a bit of freeway folly. And since he still drives back and forth frequently, and still keeps up with the news from here, he reasoned he'd share his idea here.

On freeways in the Northwest and throughout the country, most exits are off to the right. Right? Signs posted to alert drivers to upcoming exits can lead drivers to start jockeying through traffic to get over to the far right lane before the exit.

But what about those times the exit turns out to be on the left side of the freeway? Seneca Street and Mercer Street exits from northbound Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle come to mind.

"Suddenly you have to choose," says Hawley. "Skip the exit altogether, or more likely, urgently cut back through lanes of fast-moving cars to get to the other side."

Too often, he's found there's not enough time to safely make it to the other side. And an out-of-towner or a driver unfamiliar with the area can get lost taking the next exit, then trying to figure out how to backtrack.

"This has happened to me many times in many different cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Houston to Washington D.C.," he said.

So here's his suggestion: Make it standard practice for exit signs on major freeways and highways to bear white lettering if the exit is on the right, and yellow lettering if the exit is on the left.

"The cost would seem to be well worthwhile," he figures. Good idea?

A: Interesting idea, says Rick Mowlds, a state Department of Transportation traffic operations engineer, and a problem state and federal highway folks also have pondered.

"We recognize that drivers might not expect left-hand exits and might have difficulty safely changing lanes to access the exits," said Mowlds. "Ideally, we try to replace left-hand exits with right-hand exits (in this state) when we can," he said. Such was the case last summer with the Broadway exit off northbound I-5 in Everett.

"Unfortunately, at many locations we are unable to eliminate existing left-hand exits because of challenging geography and high costs," he said.

Nationally, all states are now being mandated by the Federal Highway Administration to include the word "left" on all signs approaching left-hand exits.

Mowlds says compliance should be complete across this state sometime next year.

September 7, 2007

Trail tales

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 2:35 PM

Q: Bicyclists took the city at its word when it was announced early last month that a closed stretch of the Burke-Gilman Trail near Seattle's Fremont Bridge would be reopened by the end of August instead of remaining blocked by a private construction project through mid-2008.

But a bicyclist reports she was on the trail about a week ago, and it's still closed. So what gives?

A: The trail's re-opening has been delayed because Seattle transportation department contractors discovered a problem with the storm drainage under the Fremont Bridge, says transportation department spokesman Gregg Hirakawa. The problem delayed work under the bridge's north approach, and subsequent grading and paving deemed necessary to safely open the trail, he said.

Contractors paved a section under the north approach last month in preparation for final grading and paving in the area. Scheduling paving crews during the summer, however, was challenging, Hirakawa said, because of a heavy workload.

The latest word: The city now says the trail will be re-opened within the next week or two. But construction crews will continue working along the trail, replacing the mechanical and electrical systems on the bridge's movable middle section.

The trail will pass next to the work area, and crews will continue to use the trail to deliver equipment. So even after the trail is re-opened, users will probably notice sporatic disruptions when crews are moving equipment and material through the area.

Crews also are still working to complete sealing and painting on the bridge's south approach, and also completing drainage work and grading and paving in the area along the Ship Canal Trail.

The transportation department says the Ship Canal Trail should be re-opened by the end of this month.

What's cracking here?

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 9:59 AM

Q: Eastside resident Sally Lindberg and a girlfriend were in Seattle's University District about three weeks ago to attend a sneak preview of the documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (It was "fantastic," says she) at the Varsity Theatre. As they strolled along "The Ave," University Way Northeast, an Indian restaurant across the street caught their eye, "and the side we were on had a big metal fence blocking off the rest of the sidewalk for construction."

As they started to cross the street mid-block, (yes, that's called jaywalking), Lindberg tripped over something on the sidewalk, and says she felt a toe crack. What she did notice was a pair of metal screws, each more than an inch tall, protruding from the sidewalk about two feet or more from the curb. She figures they were what was left from a parking meter or a sign that had been removed.

"I saw no red paint, cover, nothing to alert me," she said. "And since city of Seattle sidewalks are supposed to be safe to walk on, I wasn't staring at my feet in the first place."

It all happened in broad daylight, and she swears neither of them were impaired in any way.

Lindberg says she suffers a bit of osteoporosis, and the thought of a serious fracture crossed her mind. "If I had broken anything else besides a toe, the city would have really heard from me."

But she's still irked. And she wonders if anyone else has tripped over those bolts. "This should have been clearly marked or covered with something," she said. "Why is the city letting the sidewalk be this dangerous?"

A: A Seattle transportation department street-use division inspector looked into the complaint, and discovered that someone or something apparently had knocked over a bike rack just outside the construction fence blocking the sidewalk.

The inspector placed protective traffic cones over the exposed bolts, says transportation department spokesman Gregg Hirakawa.

The inspector also talked with the construction crew in the area, and was told workers had discovered the damaged rack on the ground. Workers also noticed the bolt plate and bolts that were bent. Hirakawa said workers reinstalled the damaged bike rack temporarily, and will eventually make permanent repairs.

No telling what happened there, but, he conceded, there have been cases where motorists veered off the street and struck posts, racks or something else attached to city sidewalks. "Unless someone alerts the transportation department, street inspectors have no way of knowing a hazard exists," he said.

September 6, 2007

A quick fix?

Posted by Charles E. Brown at 1:20 PM

Q: Would a second left-turn lane for southbound traffic at Dexter Avenue North and Mercer Street, just east of Aurora Avenue North near Seattle Center, improve traffic flow? Eric Fernstrom of Renton thinks it might, and he thinks it should be a simple fix.

"I have seen traffic backed up, up to a half-mile or more," he said, and that creates traffic problems at both the Valley Street and Aloha Street intersections to the north.

Fernstrom's idea is to make the Dexter and Mercer intersection similar in traffic pattern to Sixth Avenue South and South Spokane Street, where an inside lane feeds traffic onto Interstate 5 northbound and the adjacent lane is for traffic onto I-5 southbound or through traffic on Sixth.

A: Maybe there's a simpler fix, says Wayne Wentz, the Seattle transportation department's traffic management director.

A lane shared by left-turn and through lane would require a change in the traffic signal, he said, and that would likely reduce the time allowed for each movement, "which would lead to more congestion."

But Wentz says here's an improvement that might work: The southbound left-turn pocket can be extended 30 to 40 feet. That, he says, would help get left-turning traffic out of the way of southbound through traffic, and help move left-turners through the intersection quickly.

"We will make this change within the next four weeks," he said.

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