Combatting speeding in Pinedale

Robert Galbreath photo A new dynamic speed feedback sign was recently installed where Highway 191 transitions into Pine Street on the east end of Pinedale. A collaboration between the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office and the Town of Pinedale, the sign warns drivers to slow down when they are moving faster than the posted speed limit.

Dynamic speed feedback signs another ‘tool in arsenal’

PINEDALE – Pine Street is a traffic and pedestrian flashpoint – a unique transportation zone where a major national highway transitions into Pinedale’s main street.

During the peak tourist season, thousands of visitors using Highway 191 as a thoroughfare to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks compete for space with locals going to and from businesses, offices, schools and restaurants.

Hundreds of trucks rumble down the four-lane portion of the street, en route to deliver goods and supplies to towns across Wyoming and Idaho.

Children zip through town on bikes, scooters and skateboards on their way to school, local parks, the ballfields, library, sports events or residential areas.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, calls “transition zones” – where rural highways become municipal streets in built up areas – the “most dangerous roadway” classification.

Over the past two years, the Sublette County Sheriff’s Department responded to three vehicle versus pedestrian incidents on Pine Street, with “many more close calls” reported between people and vehicles, said Sheriff KC Lehr.

“It’s only a matter of time before it happens again,” Lehr added.

Dynamic speed feedback signs

Folks entering Pinedale noted new digital speed signs along Pine Street on both the eastern and western ends of town only days before the school year commenced.

Traffic engineers refer to these signs as “dynamic speed feedback signs,” or DSFS.

DSFSs digitally detect how fast a car is traveling and then instantly displays the speed back to the driver. Flickering orange lights caution drivers with the message to “slow down” if they are moving more than 5 mph above the posted speed limit. A “too fast” warning flashes if a vehicle is exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more.

The NHTSA refers to DSFS displays as a “traffic calming” method to reduce speeds, especially in construction work zones, school zones, on curving highways and transition zones where folks begin to slow down as they enter a municipality.

A DSFS signal can also encourage a driver to “self enforce” their speed and slow down to the posted speed limit on their own initiative, the NHTSA stated.

From Austin, Texas, to Island Park, Idaho, DSFS are cropping up on streets and highways across the United States, including Pinedale, Wyoming.

“This is one more tool in our arsenal to reduce speeding,” said Sheriff Lehr.

A local collaboration

The installation of the DSFSs on Pine Street-Highway 191 are the result of a “two-and-a-half year venture” between the Town of Pinedale and Sublette County Sheriff’s Office that “finally came to fruition,” said Sheriff Lehr.

A DSFS cannot simply be installed by an agency or municipality overnight. A roadway must meet specific criteria set out by the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) before a DSFS can go up, Lehr explained.

WYDOT denied Pinedale’s first application, sending everyone back to the drawing board, said Lehr. Further traffic and speed studies determined that heavier traffic along Pine Street and a higher percentage of excess speeding per 100 vehicles qualified the town for a DSFS in 2023, Lehr added.

The sheriff’s office teamed up with the town council, Pinedale Mayor Matt Murdock, Abe Pearce, director of public works and Kevin Mitchell, public works supervisor, to make the DSFS a reality, Lehr said.

Primary concerns voiced at meetings by both the sheriff and town council was the amount of traffic on Pine Street and an increase in “major citations” and warnings issued by law enforcement between mile markers 99 and 100 where Highway 191 passes through town, Lehr told the Roundup.

The town and sheriff’s office agreed to split the cost to erect the DSFSs, with the two entities each paying for one sign at $5,540 apiece. The sheriff’s office is responsible for ongoing maintenance of both signs, said Lehr.

In addition to warning speeders to slow down, the DSFSs are capable of collecting data regarding average and maximum speeds along Pine Street along and can track traffic volumes, Lehr noted. The signs do not contain cameras capable of reading license plates to enforce speeding, he continued.

An effective solution

In 2021, the NHTSA reviewed nearly 60 studies conducted across the nation regarding the effectiveness of DSFSs.

After crunching the numbers from thousands of observations made by state transportation agencies, the NHTSA concluded that “the clear majority of studies found significant reductions in speeds at the DSFSs, when the DSFSs are activated.”

The NHTSA noted an overall speed reduction of 4 mph for passenger cars where DSFSs were deployed and a 2-4 mph drop for all other vehicles, including trucks.

Speeding is a substantial factor in traffic-related deaths. According to the NHTSA, 26 percent of fatal crashes reported in 2019 were “speed related.”

Decreasing a car’s velocity, even by a small interval of one or two mph, can make the difference between life and death.

“A reduction in speed of just a few mph can significantly reduce injury from crashes,” the NHTSA stated in its report. “These effects demonstrate that DSFSs can be effective tools in saving lives.”

A 5-percent drop in velocity, from 40 mph to 38 mph, decreases the likelihood of a fatal vehicle-pedestrian accident by 20 percent, the NHTSA determined. A 10-percent decline in speed, from 42 mph to 38 mph, lowered the risk of deadly vehicle-pedestrian crashes from 50 percent to 37 percent.

The presence of DSFSs reduced speeds for all vehicles by an average of 2.75 mph in work zones, 2.79 mph in transition zones and 3.21 mph in school zones, the NHTSA found. A DSFS located at a school zone for the longterm of up to 12 months decreased speeds by up to 9 mph, according to the NHTSA.

Traffic studies indicated that DSFSs worked effectively at slowing traffic down at both the site of the DSFS and “downstream” from the sign, the NHTSA noted.

DSFSs can serve as a deterrent for speeding in communities where law enforcement resources are stretched thin.

“These results support installation of DSFS at locations where other traffic calming measures may be costly or difficult to implement,” the NHTSA stated.

One big county to patrol

Speeding solutions like the DSFS are particularly helpful in a place with a limited number of law enforcement officers covering a county roughly the size of Connecticut.

The Sublette County Sheriff’s Office possesses enough deputies to average four personnel per shift, just shy of the five deputies per shift Sheriff Lehr considers to be “fully staffed.”

Out of the four deputies assigned to each shift, one deputy covers Pinedale while a second officer is on call in Big Piney and Marbleton to meet contractual obligations with all three towns, explained Lehr.

As a result, only two deputies remain to cover calls for the rest of Sublette County, spanning more than 100 miles from county line to county line and including remote residential areas like Merna, Bondurant and La Barge, Lehr noted.

In a perfect world, the sheriff’s office would possess the staff to devote one deputy to traffic enforcement each day, said Lehr. The four deputies on duty for each shift are typically busy following through with their primary responsibility of responding to calls for service that come to dispatch from folks across the county, Lehr added.

Calls for service can range from a VIN inspection to domestic violence situations or an individual reporting an erratic driver on the highway, Lehr explained.

The sheriff’s office prioritizes traffic safety whenever resources allow. For example, the department is sending a deputy to train in advanced accident reconstruction and learn to investigate and diagram crashes, said Lehr.

The Wyoming Highway Patrol was formed in 1933 to enforce traffic laws across the state. The agency is struggling to retain officers, however.

Following the retirement of Capt. Klief Guenther and another officer, the Pinedale Highway Patrol Office is down to only two personnel, said Lehr. The two remaining officers are sometimes called to assist in Sweetwater and Teton counties, Lehr added.

Overall, the state is down 64 highway patrol positions, Lehr remarked. Recruitment is a challenge in Wyoming because highway patrol salaries are “not as competitive as other law enforcement agencies” in the state or when compared to patrols in other states, said Lehr.

While law enforcement in Sublette County is “fortunate” to have the support of the community, people are generally hesitant to pursue careers in law enforcement as agencies across the country are dismantled or defunded, Lehr added.

Slow down!

Sheriff Lehr looks forward to continuing his office’s collaboration with the Town of Pinedale. The town is currently in the process of developing master plans for transportation and pedestrian safety in the community.

The master plans are documents that identify gaps in the town’s infrastructure and determine the best long-term solutions to address each problem.

While none of the proposed projects are in the works and are likely years, if not decades, into the future, the master plans offered a wide variety of solutions, from realigning the lanes along Pine Street, to traffic signals and sidewalk extensions called bulbouts.

One solution that Lehr is particularly “encouraged” by are proposals for a bypass to redirect larger trucks and traffic out of downtown Pinedale. Lehr realized that a bypass could decrease the number of visitors to downtown Pinedale, possibly adversely affecting businesses in the community.

Change is never easy, and there is always a level of give and take and compromise. Yet seemingly small solutions like dynamic speed feedback signs can make a community safer and even save lives.

“The (DSFS) are another tool to get people’s attention and slow people down before someone is seriously injured or killed,” Lehr said. “We’ve had too many close calls with our citizens. Change is necessary to prevent a catastrophe.”

In the meantime, Sheriff Lehr encourages everyone to drive safely, be patient and slow down.

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