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Dave Murray: 'The last thing traffic engineers should be doing is adding to driver frustration.'

The media has recently been highlighting concerns regarding an increase in collisions and fatalities upon roads around the greater Portland area. There has been speculation about traffic enforcement practices and pandemic-induced behavioral changes as possible factors.

Related to this, I had an encounter with a Washington County Land Use & Transportation worker that really surprised me — and not in a good way.

This person was inspecting the operation of the traffic control devices at the intersection of Walker Road and 158th Avenue. Seeing him at work, I inquired about the process. He replied it was simply verifying all was working as programmed.

I then asked if he was open to some feedback. He was.

Here is where things got strange. I told him that when driving on the Westside, the following consistently occurs:

After stopping for a red light, then accelerating to the speed limit at a normal rate upon the green light, I consistently encounter another red light at the next signal.

His reply stunned me.

"Oh, sure, we do that on purpose. We feel it is best to bunch cars together in traffic."

When I pointed out that drivers in other areas can drive for many miles along streets with sequenced traffic lights — and thus rarely need to stop if going the speed limit — he simply shrugged.

This practice is, to me, nonsense on several levels.

First and foremost, it ignores natural human reactions. The last thing traffic engineers should be doing is adding to driver frustration.

We all know an agitated motorist is an unsafe one. For those who travel east/west along Walker Road, or north/south along Murray Road or Cedar Hills Boulevard, you will likely see a significant number of drivers who are weary of excessive stopping and have learned to exceed the speed limit in order to avoid being delayed for no apparent purpose.

This is problematic for many reasons — not least of which is the danger ensuing from significant disparities in speed among road users, which includes those driving well under the speed limit.

Then, too, the claim that "bunching cars" is a good thing is patently ridiculous. It shouldn't take a genius to understand that cars traveling farther apart are less like to collide.

We can also question this practice on the basis of environmental health. Cars idling at traffic lights emit pollution and getting back up to speed from a stop burns more fuel. It also causes excessive wear and tear on vehicles.

Not long after this conversation, I also spoke with a Washington County Sheriff's Office motorcycle patrolman. I shared these details with him and got his take on matters.

In short, he concurred with my observations and agreed with the notion that deliberate, counterintuitive signal timing contributes to chaotic traffic and poor driving. As someone who is tasked daily with monitoring driver safety, his opinion should be taken seriously.

I have not had any further conversations with other local traffic engineers but am interested to know how this current approach was adopted — and when we might find relief from it.

As a driver, bicyclist, motorcyclist and pedestrian, I am ready for better practices from Washington County, the City of Portland and the State of Oregon.

Dave Murray is a Cedar Hills resident.

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