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Are speed bumps causing more harm than good?

Emergency services not particularly fond of the neighborhood traffic devices
Drivers make their way over speed bumps on Rim Drive in front of Hillcrest Golf Club. Speed bumps are meant to slow down drivers, but they have their critics, including emergency responders, who say they can be uncomfortable for patients and medical workers in the back of an ambulance. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Speed bumps, those pesky traffic devices that aim to slow down drivers but can do a number on a vehicle’s shocks, aren’t just bothersome to everyday drivers – emergency responders also find them annoying.

And it’s not just drivers and emergency responders. Even residents who live near speed bumps – as in the people speed bumps are meant to benefit – can grow tired of the traffic-calming devices.

The city of Durango plans to remove two speed bumps next year on North College Drive, largely in response to resident complaints, said Keith Dougherty, city civil engineer.

“Right now, we’re proposing to take them out, but we have planned to look at other options to put them back in if we find that the speeding on North College becomes more problematic,” he said.

On a ride-along this week with the Durango Fire Protection District, fire trainer Scott Gallagher drove an ambulance over two speed bumps on North College Drive, one at 10 mph and the other at 16 mph.

Driving over the speed bump at 10 mph rocked the ambulance. Gallagher accelerated to 16 mph for the second bump, which rattled the cabin and launched Fire Marshal Karola Hanks upward out of her seat. Fortunately, she was wearing her seat belt.

The ambulance similarly rocked as it traveled over railroad tracks on Main Avenue.

Try to imagine going over one of these bumps while strapped to a gurney with a broken hip, Hanks said. Or imagine being a medical professional trying to stick someone with a needle or trying to intubate a patient by shoving a tube down their throat while going over one of these bumps, she said.

Signs warn drivers ahead of speed bumps on Riverview Drive. Neighbors may like the idea of slowing down traffic, but speed bumps also cause drivers to slow down and speed up, which creates its own set of issues. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

This isn’t even to mention that speed bumps slow down ambulances when they’re trying to go somewhere quickly.

DFPD’s ambulances and fire trucks are under tight time limits when they respond to emergencies, Hanks said. A few seconds lost navigating a speed bump is a few seconds delay to responding to a fire or a medical emergency.

She said that, in theory, firefighters should have their gear on, their engines fired up and be moving out of the apparatus bay 80 seconds after getting a report of a fire. They then have four minutes to get to the scene.

Every year, Hanks uses a fire map produced by the county to analyze where fires are occurring and how to plot primary, secondary and tertiary fire routes to those locations.

“With that, I look at where all we can get to different areas in our community in four minutes,” she said. “Now, if somebody comes in and says, ‘We want to add traffic calming,’ I then have to recalculate all those numbers to see the impact of that.”

To be fair, speed bumps aren’t the only traffic devices slowing down emergency responses, she said. Narrow roundabouts, hard-surface curbs, islands and some medians also have an impact, she said.

If a fire engine runs over a pedestrian on its way to a fire, the fire district is liable for that, she said. So even though emergency service vehicles have lights and sirens and can speed if they must, in general, they don’t drive over the speed limit.

Drivers pass over one of two speed bumps on North College Drive. A nearby resident said some drivers treat the speed bumps as ramps and “go flying in the air.” (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“We stick to speed limits to the best of our ability,” Hanks said. “I’m never going to say that somebody (calls in) and a 2-year-old child is not breathing that we’re not going to push the envelope a bit. And I think everybody understands that.”

In other words, emergency service vehicles don’t have as much leeway when it comes to bypassing the rules of the road as one might think. But speed bumps, for the most part, are nonnegotiable.

Fire engines in particular are large and heavy and take longer to accelerate or come to a stop than smaller vehicles, Gallagher said. So every speed bump on a route burns time.

Hanks added that a fire engine can’t just barrel over a speed bump, because it does no good to arrive at the scene with broken equipment. Plus, fire engines cost $1 million or more.

Why do we have these things?
Signs warn drivers before going over speed bumps on Riverview Drive. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Speed bumps may not be necessary in some areas where they have been placed, Dougherty said.

For the most part, the city moved away from using speed bumps years ago. When speed bumps are installed, the city tries to keep them to areas with speed limits under 30 mph.

Some speed bumps still exist from before the city’s shift in planning. Dougherty said those speed bumps are often accompanied by signs warning “Caution. Bump ahead. 15 mph.”

“The point is that most of our local streets are 25 mph, so why do we need to slow people down to 15 mph if the speed limit is 25 mph?” he said. “They are allowed to drive 25 mph.”

Hanks shared a similar thought. She pointed out that speed bumps often slow traffic down below posted speed limits even though roads are supposed to maintain an even flow of traffic at a designated speed.

She said if a posted speed limit is 25 mph, the purpose and design of the street should allow drivers to go 25 mph.

“Not to slow them to 10 mph, to (then) accelerate to 25 mph,” she said. “Because we know that then everybody accelerates to 35 mph to catch up on the time they lost back there.”

North College Drive resident William Zothen said the bumps help “a bit” to slow down traffic, but he thinks the uppermost speed bump should be moved above a major curve leading into the neighborhood, because as it is now drivers don’t see it until they’ve already rounded the corner.

Another resident said having the speed bumps is better than not having them.

“We get a lot of traffic on this street,” said Joe Zuber. “It’s one of the only north-south thoroughfares that you can get from one end of the town to the other.”

Resident Bernie Aguilar said the North College Drive bumps don’t work that well. When a large truck hits the one outside his home, his house shakes.

“They slow down some people,” he said. “Some people think it’s a ramp to go flying in the air. They just goose and fly over.”


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