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.