A bad sign

Bill Lambert, the state traffic engineer and administrator for the state Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Traffic, keeps a speed limit sign in his office that was a frequent target of angry drivers.

Be careful out there. Bad drivers are all over the roads this summer.

Some people are taking it on themselves to do something about it.

A state Department of Transportation crew painting the white lines on a stretch of Route 107 in Barnstead a few weeks back noticed something strange.

The broken yellow line another DOT crew had painted to signal a passing zone was now a solid yellow line — sort of. Someone had used spray paint to connect the dots.

“It was a different color yellow,” said Bill Lambert, the state traffic engineer at DOT who received the puzzling report. “It was clearly not done by us.”

A few days later, Lambert started getting emails and calls thanking DOT for lowering the speed limit in the same area.

Except DOT hadn’t.

“We checked and found there were a couple of 40 miles an hour signs missing,” Lambert said. “We found them on what used to be the post for the 50 miles an hour sign.”

He says it’s the pandemic.

“People are home more often, so they’re noticing the speed and the conditions around their house and taking it upon themselves to fix it,” he said.

DOT notified police in Pittsfield, Barnstead and Gilmanton about the roadway vigilantes, Lambert said.

With quarantine over, more people are returning to their offices, family gatherings are happening again, and stir-crazy tourists are swarming to New Hampshire’s beaches, lakes and mountains. It all adds up to a lot more traffic this summer — and, some say, a lot more distracted drivers.

Mark Chase, chief of police in Center Harbor, has noticed it.

“Frankly, the biggest problem I see is that nobody has any courtesy,” he said. “Everyone is so self-absorbed on what they have going on … that they are not being courteous.”

“For example, you’re driving down the road and you see somebody walking. A courteous person would slow and pull over a little bit,” he said.

But these days? “People don’t do that,” he said.

More cars, higher speeds

DOT statistics show that traffic volumes on New Hampshire’s highways dropped off sharply during the pandemic shutdown. They’re now returning to pre-pandemic levels.

This past spring, the number of vehicles going through tolls on Interstate 93, I-95 and the Everett and Spaulding turnpikes was double the previous year. For the week ending April 11, the tolls recorded 1.9 million vehicles, compared with nearly 937,000 that same week in 2020 during the state shutdown.

For the week ending July 4, nearly 2.4 million vehicles passed through New Hampshire tolls. That’s more than the 2020 holiday week count of 2.1 million but still below the 2019 figure of 2.6 million. (DOT notes that the state ended toll collection at Exit 11 on the Everett Turnpike on Jan. 1, 2020, so that could be affecting the numbers.)

Capt. Christopher Vetter, commander of the Office of Highway Safety at the state Department of Safety, said he thinks the drop in traffic last year led a lot of people to drive faster.

“There was far less motoring public, so there was more road for you,” he said.

“Here we are a year later, and we’re still seeing the speeds,” Vetter said.

Between Jan. 1 and May 16, state troopers working aircraft enforcement details stopped 329 drivers for going 90 mph or more. That’s two and a half times the 131 drivers stopped in 2018.

State police also stopped 37 drivers doing 100 or more, a more than fivefold increase since 2018.

“We’re seeing some big numbers,” Vetter said.

The increase is troubling, he said.

“Obviously, high speeds like that increase the opportunity for you to be in a traffic crash and certainly increase the chances you’re going to be injured or potentially lose your life,” he said.

Post-COVID aggression

State police also are receiving more reports of road rage incidents, Vetter said.

Center Harbor’s Chief Chase has noticed a lot of “very aggressive” driving: “Nobody’s willing to slow down or give way to anybody.”

“I think you have people who are pent-up. Nobody focuses on driving,” he said. “Let’s face it, they’re playing with their cell phones, radio, GPS, trying to figure out where they’re going, but they’re not focusing on lane control, turn signals, all those types of items.”

Lambert, the state traffic engineer, said he spends much of his time these days handling calls from local officials and residents about traffic problems, such as speeding, dangerous intersections and illegal parking on state roadways, especially near popular hiking areas.

DOT has added flashing red lights on Route 116 in Franconia to warn drivers of the upcoming stop sign at the intersection with Route 18, he said.

Lambert has been talking with the town engineer in Conway about the prospect of putting some stop signs on Hurricane Mountain Road in North Conway to try to slow down drivers who like to speed on that steep road.

But there’s often no quick fix to such issues, he said.

Posting a “no parking sign” often means drivers will just go down the road a piece to park, Lambert said. Changing the speed limit doesn’t mean drivers who go too fast will pay attention.

“If people aren’t respecting the speed limit that’s there now, what makes you think they’re going to respect something that’s lower?” he asked.

“It’s not the roads that are dangerous,” Lambert said. “It’s the people using them that are dangerous.”

David Henderson, executive director of the National Safety Council of Northern New England, said stress also may be playing a role.

“There’s just a tension a lot of people have now, and it might be affecting their driving,” he said.

As things continue to open up post-pandemic, Henderson said, “Maybe more people on the road will slow down those speeders.”

Speeding and distracted driving have been issues for years, Lambert said. He hears from his maintenance crews all the time about the drivers who come too close to the big, orange DOT trucks because they’re not paying attention.

“Driving a vehicle is probably the most dangerous thing most of us are ever going to do,” Lambert said. “We need to be treating it as such, which means we should be focusing on what’s around us, not just the bumper in front of us.”

Vetter from the Office of Highway Safety said his office funds statewide initiatives to try to reduce speeding, impaired driving and distracted driving.

“We’re targeting a lot of those things that create a hazard on the road,” he said. “Our preference would be to change behaviors before they happen.”

Don’t shoot the signs

Lowering the speed limit isn’t always a popular move.

Lambert keeps a 30 mph speed limit sign in his office that used to be posted on Route 135 in Bath.

It’s riddled with birdshot.

A lower speed limit was deemed appropriate for the neighboring business district of Woodsville, but north of there, on a relatively flat, straight stretch of road, the posted speed limit was 50 mph, Lambert said.

About a dozen years ago, a family purchased a farm on the road and repeatedly demanded that the state extend the 30 mph speed limit to include the road in front of their property, Lambert said.

“Eventually, they found a sympathetic ear,” Lambert said.

“Once local law enforcement began to enforce the extended limit, the speed limit sign became a target,” he recalled.

Other signs have been used for target practice over the years, Lambert said — usually the ones warning of deer and moose crossings.

But whoever targeted the Bath sign “was clearly sending a message,” he said.

The third time DOT had to replace the sign, a foreman wrote this plea on the back: “Please don’t shoot me.”

The plea went unheeded. The DOT changed the speed limit to 40 mph in 2014.

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