To Snap Drivers Awake, State DOT May Sacrifice Cyclist Safety

Miles and miles of bike-friendly Westchester County roads may soon be scarred by a "safety enhancement" that could make cycling treacherous.

wilt_rumble_strips.jpgA rumble strip threw NYPD Sergeant Richard Wilt off his bike and into the pavement. Photo: Joe Larese/Journal News

The New York State Department of Transportation is considering gouging pavement ridges into road shoulders just outside the white "fog line" on dozens of secondary roads. These "rumble strips" are said to jolt drowsy drivers back to wakefulness and reduce crashing due to "drifting." They are standard features on interstates. DOT insists that no decision is imminent, but concerned advocates at the Westchester Cycle Club and the Bike Walk Alliance of Westchester and Putnam Counties are mobilizing to quash the idea.

Rumble strips were installed in 2008 on one of Westchester’s prime roads for cycling, a 4.4-mile stretch of Route 100 that flanks the Croton Reservoir and intersects the popular North County Trailway. A DOT engineer whose truck had been rear-ended as he turned into an agency depot reportedly rushed them through, costing taxpayers $43,000 and violating agency procedures, according to WCC president David Wilson, who later sued when negotiations to remove the strips failed. The suit is pending in State Supreme Court while the judge weighs the state’s motion to dismiss WCC as a plaintiff.

I tried riding on those strips on a weekend ride in the Croton watershed in August. I endured the jarring sensation induced by the half-inch-deep ridges for just a few seconds, bracing my road bike against the jackhammer impacts and fearing for its health. Less fortunate was cyclist Richard Wilt from nearby Mt. Kisco. Pedaling along Route 100 in the dark last year, Wilt, an NYPD sergeant, did a 360 over the handlebars that ended in a face-plant, earning him stitches and a chipped tooth.

Many of the candidate roads are two-way, scenic and winding, with hills prized by recreational riders as challenging to climb and thrilling to descend. Cyclists move seamlessly between the roadway and shoulder, as dictated by traffic, pavement and their own skill level and number. WCC and BWA leadership fear that bisecting these broad ribbons of road would force cyclists to choose between the roadway and the extreme shoulder and then stay put regardless of changed conditions. Riding in darkness will afford even less margin for error, as Sgt. Wilk found.

As with most controversies involving State DOT, ironies abound.

An agency too cash-starved to pay for the Sheridan Expressway teardown, part of a government whose credit-rating is plummeting, may shell out $10,000 to $20,000 a mile on an investment of dubious value. A county whose bike-friendly topography and byways attract cyclists from all over may soon be signaling them to keep away. An "improvement" couched as safety could endanger thousands and discourage active recreation.

Underneath the ironies are opposing interests and clashing values. Since other drivers’ safety is not at stake — almost all drifting crashes involve only the drifter — installing rumble strips in effect caters to road users who cannot remain attentive at the expense of another group that must stay alert at all times. Cyclists, who repudiate safety-through-armor and simply ask to be left alone, risk becoming collateral damage of the nanny state.

Any large-scale installation of rumble strips in Westchester must be preceded by a formal comment process including a public hearing and issuance of an official Engineering Instruction. Reached last week, a State DOT spokesman said his agency is "analyzing the body of experience" elsewhere with rumble strips and is "nowhere near" a possible decision to proceed.

  • David_K

    Good article. I hope DOT reads it; the benefits of rumble strips seem very small indeed compared to the expenses of implementing them, and the losses of recreationial bikers, tourists, and two-wheeled commuters.

  • James

    Glad to see this getting attention on here. I’ve ridden this road both before and after the rumble strips were installed and they are indeed a huge hazard. Any time a car happens to be parked in the shoulder, you are forced on to the rumble strips to pass, potentially putting you in the situation of losing control of your bike and ending up on the ground in the 50mph travel lane on Route 100. Hazardous in the extreme.

  • More pandering to incompetent motorists. How long must we kowtow to their inability to operate their automobiles in a responsible manner?

    A good article from Streetsblog Orlando express it nicely:

    http://commuteorlando.com/wordpress/2009/07/10/the-incompetent-shall-inherit-the-roadway/

  • kate

    In and around L.A. on the freeways are little reflective bumps that work for drifting drivers and would not be so hazardous to cyclists if placed right on the white lines. In fact, it might be a good thing to keep the cars from drifting into someone. These rumble strips are totally excessive and would be a major drag for cyclists.

  • kate, reflective bumps (cat eyes) are rare in northern states because snow plows destroy them.

  • JJM 63

    One of the things NYSDOT must look at when investigating a safety matter is the crash history. If they see a large number of vehicle run-off-road crashes, then rumble strips may be considered.

    On the other hand, bicycle crashes are notoriously unreported, even though state law requires filing a report for every bicycle crash that results in a serious injury (http://www.nydmv.state.ny.us/forms/mv104c.pdf).

    So, a diligent engineer may see a pattern of people running off the road in cars, but not see a pattern of bicyclist crashes in the same location. As a result, he or she may think there is no bicycle safety problem, even if there is one.

    You know, there is nothing saying that the bike crash report form can’t be filled out for lesser crashes. If you crash, and think a road condition contributed, maybe submitting the form would make a difference. In my 17 years as a practicing traffic* safety engineer, I’ve never seen one of these filled out.

    *I use the legal definition: Pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, vehicles, bicycles, and other conveyances either singly or together while using any highway for purposes of travel.

  • Pat

    The biggest problem is not so much the rumble strips themselves, but the cars that park on the shoulder forcing cyclists to transition through the rough patch. I’ve ridden that road. Hitting the rumble strip in a road bike is scary. Hard to maintain control.

  • Stephen Moody

    Trade-offs of the well-meaning: In urban environments, such as mine in Brookline, Massachusetts, these rumble strips are used to protect pedestrians and cars backing up from side-by-side parking areas, and have rough or catastrophic effects on bicyclists (comme mois). One solution to the rural area rumble strips in Charlie’s note is a combination of frequent, generously-sized, periodic breaks in the rumble strips to allow entry and exit as well as fluorescent paint markings.

  • The picture makes it look like there is about six feet of smooth pavement shoulder beyond the rumble strip. If so, what’s the problem?

  • James

    Try looking closer. There’s about a foot between the outside edge of the rumble strip and the white line that demarcates the travel lane. Riding to the right of the rumble strip on Route 100’s shoulder is fine, as there is a generously sized lane there. However, if a vehicle happens to be parked in the shoulder, you are SOL as any attempt to pass will probably put you on to the rumble strips and potentially cause a loss of control.

  • galen

    I found this article linked in The Browser. Here in MD, we luckily have few roads with these rumble strips. But, I think there might be a middleground – redesigning the rumbles to be not as wide or as deep, spacing them much further apart and positioning them at the edge of and in travel lane or the fog line.

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