Don Morrison: Slow down, you’re goin’ too fast
When I was 8 years old, my mom and dad were zipping down a country road in their shiny new Buick when the right front tire blew. The car veered off the pavement and landed upside down at the bottom of an embankment. They were hospitalized for weeks. I was traumatized for life.
To this day, I drive so slowly that my wife begs me to at least approach the speed limit. I’m the guy you see on Route 8 leading a caravan of impatient drivers itching to pass.
Let them itch. In decades on the road, I have had no accidents and only one speeding ticket. Two police officers caught me going a few miles above the limit in Hinsdale some years ago. I was astounded, not so much because I’m a confirmed slowpoke but because both cops were young females with impressive sidearms and a Dodge Charger muscle car.
Driving in the Berkshires is deadly. Our road fatality rate is the highest in Massachusetts, at nearly 10 per 100,000 residents. One-quarter of all auto accidents here involve alcohol. I couldn’t find numbers for speeding, but I suspect they’re also alarming. My insurance rates went up when I moved my car to the Berkshires from Hampden County.
Berkshire drivers are always in a hurry. For a place with relatively mild traffic jams, we have surprisingly lengthy commutes — about 20 minutes on average, more than half an hour for 20 percent of us. Because we’re a semi-rural place, our shopping is often distant. Speed is the equalizer. Just ask the bard of Hollenbeck Avenue, whose anti-speeding pleas had livened this space for years. (Thank you, Alan Chartock. Your cause endures.)
Our roads are mostly narrow, ravaged by winter frosts and forever under repair. Our most direct routes are often thwarted by bridge closures, as are those clever, back-road work-arounds. How I miss Lenoxdale’s Walker Street.
About 13 percent of the county’s 364 town-owned bridges were deemed structurally deficient in 2017. Most of them seem to be closed at any given moment. Great Barrington’s Cottage Street span is kaput and Division Street will be out of commission for at least two years — though you shouldn’t use that as an excuse if caught speeding.
Our police, lying patiently in wait, try their best to keep us from killing each other. But they have other problems to deal with, like gun violence, the opioid epidemic and directing traffic around construction sites.
A decade ago, Massachusetts became the last state in the U.S. to allow civilian workers to handle that chore, but police still do most of it. Old habits die hard.
Speeding seems to be one of them. The Mass Pike is a 138-mile speedway, where anybody doing less than 75 gets hounded into the slow lane. Route 7 in Lenox isn’t far behind. On most Berkshire roads, only suckers like me heed the speed signs; everybody else adds 10 or 15 mph to them.
Our intersections have become deathtraps. Two people were killed at the same one in a single month this summer in Richmond. As for those crosswalks where it’s mandatory to stop for pedestrians, barely a week goes by without a casualty.
What more can we do? Install more stop signs and stoplights? Lower speed limits? More guilt-inducing electronic speed-sign trailers? We’ve tried all that.
Here are three suggestions. First, look up “traffic calming,” the engineering strategy used throughout Europe to slow drivers and save lives. You’ll find plenty of tricks: bullouts, chokers, woonerfs, rumble strips. Makes for interesting reading.
Second, tie fines to annual incomes, as is done in Finland and Switzerland. That softens the inequities of the justice system and, for some reason, seems to deter speeders rich and poor.
Third, slow down and be nice to each other. We have surprisingly little to lose, including time. I did the math. If we cut our habitual driving speed by 5 mph, those 20-minute commutes would, on average, take only about two minutes longer. A small sacrifice, and it might save a few lives.
Perhaps mine. When the weather is good, I don high-visibility sportswear and go for a run along Route 8 in Becket. I wave at passing motorists — not just to make sure they see me, but also to establish a friendly human bond between us.
So if you see a geezer in ludicrous garb plodding painfully on the soft shoulder, slow down and give him a honk or a wave. It won’t cost you more than a second. Even if that small gesture doesn’t save any lives, it just might enrich two of them.
Donald Morrison, a longtime part-time resident of Becket, is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.
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