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  (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

 

(Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

Road Safety

Speed humps: effective speed control or just political meddling? Add to ...

Joel Kleinberg looks decidedly wicked behind the wheel of his ebony-hued, retro-cool 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 as he cruises the mean streets of Toronto. However, the 47-year-old Richmond Hill, Ont., man soon spots the arch-nemesis of his 425-horsepower sports car: a speed hump.

“Oh, that’s just great for a car like this,” says Kleinberg of the impending lump of asphalt. “If I don’t take this at 20 kilometres (per hour), my undercarriage is toast.”

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Kleinberg is driving along Farnham Avenue in midtown Toronto. From a distance, Farnham looks like any other neighbourhood side street. But a closer look reveals that Farnham is far from idyllic when travelling between the two major arteries it spans, Avenue Road and Yonge Street.

This 600-metre stretch is festooned with no fewer than nine speed humps – curb-to-curb road-imbedded bulges designed to force vehicles down to cycling-speed.

Amber-hued signage notes this particular area is a “Speed Control Zone”; cars are limited to 15 km/h while 10 km/h is the top speed for trucks. One block north, using Balmoral Avenue as an alternate provides no relief, for Balmoral, too, is a hump-festooned traffic-calming zone.

Farnham and Balmoral have sported speed humps for decades – “humps” being traffic engineer parlance; a speed bump is the more severe traffic impediment found in parking lots. In fact, Farnham and Balmoral used to exist as Toronto curiosities, public roadways that were structurally-modified to make traffic slow down. In the years since, speed humps in Toronto have sprouted like mushrooms after a torrential rainfall. The city now has 552 streets sporting 2,400 speed humps.

Supporters of speed humps say they play a crucial role in slowing cars down to safer speeds in residential areas. Critics say they’re ineffective as safety mechanisms and a danger to some vehicles.

“They are the OxyContin of local politicians,” says Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario Safety League (OSL). “Once they start giving these out they keep coming back for more. Maybe they [speed humps] have some value in a parking lot for people who won’t go 20 or 30 km/h, but not on roads.”

Speed humps are proliferating across the country at varying rates, though no city rivals Toronto for sheer numbers. Winnipeg has 73 streets and back lanes with 204 humps. In these past seven years, Calgary has installed 116 of what a spokesperson labelled “vertical deflections – speed humps, speed tables and speed cushions.” Vancouver has 1,100 not including those on back lanes. Montreal, in just one of 19 districts, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve near Olympic Stadium, has placed 154 humps.

Judy Tait, 51, moved to Fallingbrook Road in Toronto’s Beaches district 15 years ago when her children were one and five years old. About seven years later, speed humps were installed on Fallingbrook, and Tait says the impact on motorists’ behaviour was immediate.

“Commuters use Fallingbrook as a shortcut, but there are a lot of children in this neighbourhood and there’s even an elementary school on Fallingbrook,” she says. “But [the speed humps] definitely deter the speeders … traffic has noticeably slowed down.”

However, there’s evidence to support the contention that many speed humps are put on streets to appease imagined concerns of residents as opposed to addressing bona fide safety issues.

Steve Buckley, Toronto’s general manager of transportation services, says there is a defined criteria to determine if a road should receive speed humps.

First, there must be a desire from the community – more than 50 per cent of affected households must sign a petition pertaining to speed humps for the street. For the application to proceed, 60 per cent of signatories must be in favour of speed humps.

Then city staff examine the roadway to see if it meets safety requirements – for example, to see if there’s a lack of sidewalks and what the impact would be on emergency services.

Finally, technical requirements come into play. Traffic engineers determine the typical vehicular speed (the bulk of traffic must be found to be travelling more than 10 km/h above the speed limit) and traffic volume (the area must register about 1,000 vehicles over any given 24-hour period) and what the impact will be on public transit.

City staff then make recommendations and ultimately, city council votes on the matter – but Buckley says approximately 60 per cent of speed humps currently in place failed to meet the city’s three-pronged criteria. They were installed anyway. Each one costs $3,000, which includes signage warning of the impending hump.

Still, Joe Mihevc, a Toronto city councillor whose ward is inundated with speed humps, says if the city were to abide by the recommendations of its transportation services department, “not a single road in Toronto would qualify for speed humps.”

Mihevc says speed humps are neither “the cat’s meow or a menace” but they do serve a purpose.

“We’ve found that a street with speed humps instantly gets rid of those high-risk drivers doing 80 km/h on a residential street that has a posted 50 or 40 km/h speed limit,” says Mihevc.

Still, Patterson doesn’t like them. He says the OSL has “never been in favour of them … if I had my druthers, I’d use a lot more effective ways to get motorists to slow down.”

For example, Patterson says “speed signs” – mobile speed enforcement signage that visually registers the speed of motorists – work well when it comes to modifying the behaviour of most drivers. Patterson says police radar or automated photo-radar also serve as preferable alternatives.

Love them or loathe them, speed humps aren’t going away. Buckley says 22 additional speed humps at six locations are slated to be installed in Toronto by year’s end.

Ironically, Kleinberg himself admits to being a “YIMBY” (Yes In My Back Yard) when it comes to speed humps. “We could use a few of them on the street I live on,” he says. “That would stop people from driving like maniacs.”

If you have questions for Jason Tchir about driving or car maintenance, please write to globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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