Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Road Salt, Moose and Other Reasons to Drive Slower

The Adirondack Council this week issued a report on drinking-water contamination and environmental damage caused by road salt throughout New York State. The advocacy group offered six steps that could curtail the pollution, such as better coordination between state and local plowing crews, preemptive deicing, and development of salt alternatives.

At the bottom of a bulleted list of recommendations was the simplest: Slow Down.

“New York should adopt an aggressive approach to encourage safer winter driving, which can include lower winter speed limits, well-placed variable message boards, and greater enforcement of safe speed limits during winter storms,” the Council said.

There are other good reasons to ease up on the gas.

Moose have returned to the Adirondacks, and they’re here to stay. It’s harder to see moose than deer at night because headlight beams shoot through their legs. Lower speed limits could give drivers more time to react.

Not only does speed increase risk of injury, it burns more gas, and consequently more carbon and fuel dollars. According to Dave Werner, vice-chairman of the Franklin County Traffic Safety Board, a German study showed that, at 50 miles per hour, eight car models tested got 29 to 55 miles per gallon. At 70 mph, efficiency fell to 22 to 39 mpg. (Adding a bike rack can increase fuel consumption another 11 percent at 62 mph.)

As a region positioning itself to become a carbon-sustainability model for the world, the Adirondack Park has a lot of work to do on its transportation sector (driving makes up 38 percent of the region’s total carbon emissions, compared to 28 percent nationally).

Older park residents still remember when no salt or sand were used on some paved roads, such as the curvy stretch along Upper Saranac Lake. Everyone just knew they had to go slow. Two generations later, we’ve come to expect roads to be kept bare in all weather, and we seem to feel entitled to go the speed limit in all conditions.

I lost that sense of entitlement when I landed upside down in a ditch in Newcomb (someone else was at the wheel) and did a 360 on Route 30 north of Paul Smiths (my bad). Worse, as a reporter I saw crash sites littered with skis sprung from twisted racks. Tourists especially seem to need help adapting to local conditions. Sun can activate salt and keep a stretch of road dry, but around the bend there may be a shaded patch of ice. More salt has not proven to be a solution.

Dave Werner points out that paragraph 1180 (a) of NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law, “Speed Not Reasonable and Prudent,” says that the posted speed limit is sometimes too fast in adverse weather. Not a lot of help to the first-time winter visitor suddenly enveloped by the snow and wind tunnel that is Route 73 by the Cascade Lakes. (The lakes’ basins, the Council points out, have accumulated a layer of salt water from decades of effort to make that stretch safer.) Werner also quotes Utica National Insurance Group: “Rain, snow, fog, sleet, or icy pavements have never caused an accident.” Sort of like “Guns don’t kill people . . .” but the inference is clear.

The Adirondack Park is managed differently from the rest of the state. Our roads are certainly different. People expect a different experience here. Maybe this is the place to test whether lowering the speed limit in spots can also make a difference.

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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