Safety concerns along Route 1 net talk about speed limit change

Recently, residents of unincorporated North Bethany have voiced their concerns about the speed limit along Route 1 between Bethany Beach and the Indian River Inlet Bridge.

In a letter to the editor of the Coastal Point published on July 19, North Bethany resident Randy Forster said he believed lowering the speed limit to 35 mph would make the roadway “safer for pedestrians crossing the road or other drivers slowing down to turn into their communities.”

That letter prompted other residents in North Bethany communities to voice their support of a reduction in the span’s speed limit.

“I’m out there all the time walking and biking, along with a lot of other people. It’s a pretty scary situation,” said Joanne Finley, who resides in North Bethany. “It has gotten worse, I think.”

Finley said that she and her family enjoy the recreational aspect of traveling along Route 1, as do many others.

“It’s the only place you can really walk around here, unless you walk on the beach, which isn’t always easy to do, given the terrain. It’s beautiful; it’s a beautiful place to do it,” she said. “It’s a designated biking/walking path — it’s marked for that. There are thousands of people that do it, especially in the summer. You go out any given day and there are tons of people out there, but you do feel nervous.”

“There is no reason why the North Bethany speed limit shouldn’t be the same as the 35 mph speed limits of Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and South Bethany,” agreed North Bethany resident Cary Mason in a letter to the Coastal Point. “There are countless joggers, bikers and walkers along coastal highway in North Bethany in the summer, and many young families trying to cross with children and beach gear. Reducing the speed limit could save a life.”

Finley said she emailed Jana Simpler, the director of the Delaware Office of Highway Safety, a month ago, following the June 21 accident that killed a Pennsylvania cyclist who was riding a bicycle northbound on the shoulder of Route 1 and attempted to cross the northbound traffic lanes in a diagonal direction in front of oncoming northbound traffic.

“I have not heard back from her,” said Finley of that email.

However, the idea has already garnered some opposition, with some arguing a reduced speed limit wouldn’t be effective in enhancing safety and would add too much time to a drive from Bethany to Dewey Beach and beyond.

Bethany Beach resident Tom Fowler said that he does not support the lowering of the speed limit, citing the “Keep Kids Alive Drive 25” campaign.

“Thirty-five isn’t going to change anything. If you get struck by a car going 35 miles an hour, you’re pretty much going to be dead or hurting,” he said. “Like the gentleman said, ‘Cars are doing 65 in a 55.’ Well, what makes you think they aren’t going to do 45 in a 35?”

Jim Westhoff, a public relations officer with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) said that DelDOT determines roadway speed limits.

“We’ll do a traffic survey and look at what speed traffic is going at now, and then we actually post the speed limit so that it’s close to the average speed,” he explained, of how a speed limit is determined.

He added that, generally, lowering the speed limit does not equal a safer roadway.

“Studies have shown that, if you actually lower the speed limit, it does little impact on the actual speed,” he said. “There have been numerous studies done over the past 50 years that show if you make the speed limit much lower than what traffic is already moving, it actually creates a more dangerous situation, then you have a wide disparity in traffic speeds, and that creates a very dangerous situation.”

Westhoff said that, although lowering the speed limit is one of the least effective ways of making roadways safer for pedestrians, there are other traffic calming methods that can be used.

“Lowering the speed limit is not necessarily the only thing we can do,” he said.

Westhoff said that, if DelDOT received calls from concerned citizens regarding the roadway, it would consider doing a traffic survey to determine what could be done to increase the safety of pedestrians.

“Before we would do anything, we would do a traffic survey. We would have engineers go out and measure the speeds of vehicles traveling on that road and see how much traffic was on the road. Then we would work with the town to come up with a reasonable and effective speed limit.”

[Editor’s note: North Bethany is unincorporated and has no municipal government, leaving DelDOT to potentially take public comment on such issues and then decide if action is needed.]

Finley said that perhaps an increase in policing along the stretch of road could help keep drivers from speeding up.

“I do think we’re kind of in ‘no man’s land’ in terms of law enforcement,” she said. “This stretch of highway is monitored by the state police, and you never see them here. I would like to see more of a police presence. People just know they won’t get tickets.”

Currently, the Delaware State Police does not use speed cameras; however, Finley suggested it could be a good deterrent if used to get drivers to slow down.

“I think that would drastically help. I know a lot of other states are using them now,” she said. “Obviously, police cannot be here all the time.”

Fowler suggested that the installation of a Jersey barrier along the shoulder might help concerns about pedestrians and cyclists, without having to lower the speed limit, or communities could get creative with other options.

“They could all get together and build a bicycle trail through their communities,” he suggested. “Or they could get together and build a pedestrian bridge across the highway.”

Finley said that, with residential communities on both sides of Route 1 north of Bethany Beach, it’s difficult for people to even cross the road.

“Nobody stops for you in the crosswalk. It’s scary. It’s not a good situation,” she said. “It’s just another accident waiting to happen. I’m really surprised we haven’t had more.”

Fowler added that he believes that pedestrians and cyclists know they’re taking a risk when they travel along Route 1 and need to be even more aware.

“If you’re going to ride along with traffic going 55, that’s your choice. Bikes are considered vehicles,” he said. “I’m sure if you took a poll, these people are not jogging or riding their bikes along the beltway in D.C. — this is a four-lane highway,” he emphasized.

Westhoff added that it only takes one person’s call to have DelDOT look into conducting a traffic survey.

“I’m sure that there are lots of ways we could work with the residents to make it safer,” he said.

To contact the Delaware Department of Transportation public relations office, call (800) 652-5600.