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Hazardous Mailboxes!

The Hummel Report in Motif Magazine reports that RIDOT is ingratiating itself with neighbors along Rt. 116's Pleasant View Parkway. The agency repaved some sidewalks, which required removing the mailboxes. Unfortunately, the replacements proved flimsy, and many of them are broken. RIDOT representative Robert Rocchio explained that the reason for this was to avoid creating a hazard out of the mailboxes:
Jim Hummel (Motif): Why would the stat insist on its own mailboxes?
Robert Rocchio: That's a very good question and it comes down to safety. Safety reasons. We have to make sure, while we want the mailboxes to be sturdy and stand up to the elements or to vandalism, they also have to be safe when struck by a vehicle. That means they can't be so rigid that if a vehicles hits it could penetrate through to the passenger compartment or launch a vehicle. The mailboxes themselves have to be light enough so if they fly through the air as a projectile they don't penetrate the windshield and inure someone. So it's really because of safety reasons.
Transportation writer Tom Vanderbilt has shared this image of a tree growing in the middle of a street. In a presentation he explains how the local transportation officials wanted to remove the tree, which they described as a "fixed hazard."

You could see where if someone came driving down this street really quickly and hit this tree, they'd be toast, or at least their car would be toast. But on the other hand, the "fixed hazard" has a strong psychological effect on the safety of this street, because it slows people down. It physically narrows the lanes and it also provides aesthetic cues that "this is a neighborhood."

In the case of 116, I do have slightly mixed feelings, because it is clearly intended to be a relatively fast through route in a rural area. Generally one of the things that DOTs across the country have done is remove "fixed hazards" from neighborhoods, so as to create ugly, tree-less, speed alleys for cars. There's probably some balance to be struck between maintaining safety for drivers on a street like this that would be different than the balance struck in a more urban or town-center setting.

From Motif's coverage of 116.
On the other hand, "fixed hazards", even on relatively fast routes, help to protect the people on the other side of the fixed hazard. 116 isn't exactly going to get Thayer Street-like pedestrian traffic, but the fact that RIDOT was putting in new sidewalks suggests that someone considers this a place to walk. Kids can't safely walk to school or play in their front yards along a route where all the fixed hazards have been taken away, because guess what the new fixed hazards become? The kids.

The neighbors interviewed for this piece seem to think that one of the things RIDOT did wrong was put the mailboxes too close to the road, saying that their location causes them to be hit by snowplows. This is probably not true. In reality, the plows are probably being charged with keeping the entire width of 116 completely clear, when they shouldn't worry about being so neat and tidy. There's a strong body of evidence that shows that drivers don't need nearly as much room as they're given, and that they respond to "sneckdown" conditions by driving more carefully. The images I linked to are from urban neighborhood settings, but I've observed some even bigger sneckdowns on some of Rhode Island's larger suburban roads, created by the spaces not trampled by cars. On 116, a wider throughway is needed than in an urban neighborhood, but not necessarily the whole width of the road.

Just another day, another example of DOT rules that don't make sense.


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