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050118-adh-nws-Benton County Speed sign-my (copy)

Traffic passes a solar-powered speed sign along Springhill Drive in Benton County.

Mark Ylen, Democrat-Herald

It's a lock: Any time police officers go out to speak before neighborhood groups, it's only a matter of time before one of the attendees will bring up the issue of traffic.

And you can be sure that one of the common concerns there will revolve around how fast that traffic is moving through the neighborhood.

It's a legitimate complaint. But it's not always clear what the best way is to ensure that drivers don't race through neighborhoods at speeds that endanger their residents: Certainly, our police departments are not so well-staffed that we can afford to assign a patrol car to hunker down in each neighborhood, although there's nothing quite like spying an idling police cruiser a few blocks ahead to persuade a driver to ease up on the gas pedal.

So you can't blame the Albany Police Department for exploring less expensive options, especially considering that it has just seven officers assigned to cover traffic within town. 

In that spirit, the Police Department last year purchased a radar speed display sign for $3,199.

You're probably familiar with this type of sign: As you approach it, it signals the speed that you're traveling and typically also displays the speed limit at that location. It might blink reproachfully at you if you're exceeding the speed limit. It captures data, but it can't be used to issue tickets to speeders.

Typically, these signs are attached to portable trailers, so they can be moved from neighborhood to neighborhood as residents request them. The Albany Police Department frequently gets similar requests from neighborhood residents. 

But Albany has a twist in mind: The sign that the Police Department purchased last year will be placed on a pole on Second Avenue near Thurston Street and maintained at that location for an extended period. The speed limit there is 25 mph, but the city has information from road sensor tubes that the average speed is about 30.7 mph. Some 15 percent of drivers travel at about 34.3 mph down Second. (Traffic safety experts start to get concerned when 15 percent of drivers exceed the speed limit by at least 10 mph.)

Here's the question that Albany officials hope to answer: Does having a radar sign in one location have a long-term effect in terms of persuading drivers to slow down in that area?

On this point, the evidence is not clear: Studies on long-term radar displays have mixed results when it comes to driver behavior over time.

Benton County officials put up two solar-powered radar speed signs on Spring Hill Drive in October 2016, one at Springwood Drive in North Albany and one just north of North Nebergall. The speed limit in both areas is 40 mph. The county collected data in the area (although not in the exact location of the signs) and found no significant change in driver behavior. 

That's not a definitive finding, however: Benton County officials want to gather data over a longer period and in locations closer to the signs.

Information gathered from the sign in Albany could help answer the question of whether placing the sign in one location could have a lasting impact on driver behavior. If so, city officials might consider buying additional signs, with the idea of deploying them throughout Albany neighborhoods. 

If not, the city is only out a few thousand bucks. It seems like a reasonable investment to determine if there's a cost-efficient way to persuade drivers to ease up on the gas pedal as they cruise through residential neighborhoods. (It's worth noting that most drivers likely would prefer getting warnings from the sign than tickets from real-life officers.)

And that would leave just one other question to answer: What other topics will residents raise with police officers during their neighborhood meetings? (mm)

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