I suspect that I have the same question the mayor, Town Council members, staff, residents, business owners and pass-through motorists will ponder about Winthrop’s pending new (that is, reduced) speed limits along two short portions of Highway 20 as it serpentines through town: will the new speed zones make any difference?
As explained (we hope) in a story to be found in this week’s newspaper, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) — which has jurisdiction over the state highway — has authorized the town to reduce speed limits through the heart of downtown, and east of the Methow River bridge.
Although I’ve never understood why anyone is in such a blasted hurry to traverse the Methow — you’re going to get where you’re going anyway, so why turn it into a breakneck race? — aggressive drivers have been a problem for years, especially in the narrow confines of Winthrop as everything funnels through the Riverside Avenue corridor. A few years ago, over an eight-day period in June WSDOT found that the average vehicle speed was 43 mph in the stretch of highway where the speed limit is 25 mph. A few motorists were driving as fast as 70 mph to 80 mph. The town has been asking for WSDOT assistance, which Winthrop has now been offered and adopted.
One change will drop the top speed from 25 mph to 20 mph starting from the Chewuch River bridge (at the four-way stop) and extending to the Spring Creek Bridge. That won’t mean much to drivers who are moving barely above zero mph while backed up waiting to take their turn through the four-way stop during the height of tourism season. It’s already the slowest part of town thanks to the concentration of all kinds of traffic — motorists, pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and the occasional horseback rider. Even when the town is less crowded, as in shoulder seasons, there’s not much point to edging above the existing 25 mph limit.
The other change proposed by WSDOT, basically between East 20 Pizza and the Abby Creek Inn, reduces the town’s “entry point” limit of 35 mph to 25 mph more quickly, which is likely to have a greater impact on “incoming” (westbound) traffic if drivers are paying attention. They would, theoretically, be slowing down before encountering most of the businesses on that stretch of highway, and then rationally restrain themselves to 25 mph until, of course, they encounter new 20 mph limit at the Spring Creek Bridge.
From the other direction (eastbound into town), under the pending speed limit revisions nothing will change until you get to the Chewuch River Bridge — the limit now drops from 60 to 50 to 35 to 25 the closer you get to town. Basically, I just take my foot off the gas pedal and coast, which has earned me the annoyance of a tailgater or two who just can’t wait to roar into town at speeds defying the concept of Westernization.
Some behaviors won’t change. My personal policy is to obey the speed limits in both Winthrop and Twisp, not just as a law-abiding citizen but also as a neighbor who respects the valley’s residents and rules. It’s easier to do that in Winthrop, as motorists are forced to slow down by curves in the road and the preponderance of other traffic. In Twisp, however, too many people have no cognizance or care that the limit is, as in Winthrop, 25 mph on Highway 20 through town. It can be a scary speedway. The less-charitable part of me doesn’t mind making people brake hard to achieve 25 mph through Twisp.
One hopes that the lower limits in Winthrop amount to more than an exercise in erecting a few signs and moving a few others. Yet history undermines our confidence that people can be persuaded to drive more slowly through the simple expedient of posting lower limits. Traffic engineers will tell you that drivers only meaningfully slow down when physically forced to by things like nasty speed bumps, uncomfortably narrow lanes or roundabouts (mostly out of confusion, I suppose). Meanwhile, Winthrop’s small police force must balance the need to monitor and enforce, against the perception that Winthrop exists to punish your traffic transgressions.
Town leadership and staff should be applauded for not giving up on the speeding issue (which includes ongoing problems on some of Winthrop’s internal streets, and on other approaches to town). They’re working as fast as the bureaucracy allows at slowing things down. Like a nice drive in the country, that can take some time.