Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts

It happened again this morning. The first driver stopped at the neighborhood intersection STOP sign, and had the right-of-way, while the second driver simply ignored the sign and barreled through the intersection, without slowing down. Fortunately, the first driver knew enough to wait for the cross traffic to pass. This was not the first time a driver blew through that STOP sign. In fact, in unscientific observations at that particular intersection, drivers failed to stop more than 50 percent of the time. Some slowed down, or hesitated, but none came to a full, braked stop. Sound familiar?

Failing to observe STOP signs appears to be an epidemic in this region, with no vaccine and, sadly, no cure, except changing human behavior. Yes, the law can be enforced, but it is unrealistic to expect police officers to be available at every intersection with a STOP sign to issue tickets to flagrant drivers. When an accident occurs, the at-fault driver can be cited for a traffic violation, little comfort for the victim who simply was obeying the law.

Speeding and STOP sign violations are common complaints from neighborhood associations seeking to slow traffic and make local streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists through an established community process. Speed humps may have some success in slowing speeders, but STOP signs are designed to queue traffic rather than act as speed control devices. Each situation can be resolved by changing driver behavior.

Moving from highway speeds (Virginia’s 495 Beltway speed limit is 65 mph) and main arteries (35 and 45 mph) to local neighborhood streets (25 mph) may occur within a few blocks. Residential streets generally are narrower, without lane markings, and vehicles often are parked along the roadway, making the lanes even tighter. A few years ago, my office received a complaint when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the state agency that controls and maintains most roadways in Fairfax County, narrowed marked lanes on Graham Road to accommodate a bike lane. “Now I have to pay attention to my driving,” the constituent wrote. My response? “Yes, ma’am, you sure do!”

We all do. The average passenger vehicle weighs more than a ton, so a driver actually is operating a somewhat complicated machine that has the potential to inflict incredible damage to persons and property if the driver is not paying attention and adhering to the law. Today’s vehicles contain a lot of distractions – radio, visual screens, holders for hands-free devices, dashboard indicators, audible alarms – that can take a driver’s attention away from the road. With windows up, modern passenger compartments are almost soundproof, so drivers may not hear emergency sirens and move out of the way, as happens frequently in downtown Annandale when Fire Station 8 rescue personnel have to navigate busy roadways to respond to 911 calls.

In our busy urban and urbanizing communities, a license to operate a vehicle carries an extra responsibility for safety and adherence to traffic laws. The driver who blew through the STOP sign this morning may have felt he/she was in the comfortable confines of their own neighborhood, but that would prove small comfort in an accident. That’s something to keep in mind the next time you insert a key into the ignition or push a button to start the engine. It may be an everyday action, but it comes with a huge responsibility that might start at the STOP sign at the end of your street.

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov.