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Neighborhood case study shows speeding up with traffic down during pandemic

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Posted at 10:13 AM, Nov 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-03 14:35:01-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's an alarming trend many people have noticed in their neighborhoods and during their regular commute.

Speeding is going up during the pandemic, with some drivers seeing open roads as a ticket to hit the gas.

For the first time in Nashville, data from one neighborhood case study shows the problem is real. And advocates and law enforcement say it is widespread.

On Greenwood Avenue in East Nashville neighbors say there's a lot to love.

"We get to know every one of our neighbors," said 8-year resident and dad of two Chris Bendt. "They're all really friendly people."

But there's one sign that people are unhappy in the neighborhood. Or, rather 20 signs, as bright green banners urge drivers to slow down.

"We call it the Greenwood race track," said resident Steven Abernathy. "Cause it's like as soon as you get past the stop sign it's like full punch all gas."

Data provided by Streetlight Data Insights, courtesy of a partnership between Spin and Walk Bike Nashville, used cell phone tracking and GPS information to show the numbers. March through June saw traffic volumes drop 20-50% on Greenwood Avenue, but average speeds increased by 3 mph.

And more alarmingly, the percentage of speeders increased. In both May and June 2019, around 13% of drivers were going above the 30 mph limit. But during those months in 2020, speeders jumped to 22%.

"What we saw was exactly what neighbors had been experiencing," said Nora Kern with Walk Bike Nashville, who is pushing for more traffic calming measures in residential neighborhoods to decrease the danger.

With 29 pedestrian deaths so far in 2020, Nashville is on track to break its record for deadliest year for pedestrians, set last year at 32.

A Metro program to reduce neighborhood traffic speeds from 30 mph to 25 mph is currently paused due to financial constraints on the city, according to Metro Public Works spokesperson Cortnye Stone.

"We are hopeful to complete this project as soon as possible based on Finance’s approval to spend already approved funds," Stone said in an email. After approval, the sign replacement process would take several months.

But cut-throughs like Greenwood Avenue would be exempt. Kern says there are plenty of other measures that could help. And many are low cost, which is key for a city dealing with financial issues.

"Everything from traditional speed bumps to roundabouts to pinch points or re-striping, so we think that’s a really good return on investment," she listed examples from the current traffic calming program.

The issue isn't isolated to the Greenwood neighborhood, or to Nashville. Troopers are reporting an uptick of speeders on interstates across Tennessee. This year they've issued a whopping 14,051 citations to "super speeders," or people going above 100 mph. That's a 31% increase from 2019.

Tragically, 58 more people have died on Tennessee roads this year, as well. And that’s with traffic volumes down.

"Six out of 10 months [during the pandemic] we have seen an increase in traffic fatalities. That is alarming all by itself," said Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Miller.

He says special events over the summer took many troopers off their normal patrols. But as we head deeper into fall, they are back on their regular shifts and on high alert for speeders.

So why is this happening?

Miller says the open roads have been tempting for drivers who already make poor decisions behind the wheel.

"They were driving recklessly probably before the pandemic" he said. "Those drivers then accelerated [when] they didn’t have other vehicles to slow them down."

Kern agrees the open roads are playing a prominent role. In a wide, flat street like Greenwood Avenue, there is nothing to slow someone down. Until it's possibly too late.

"We need everyone to take traffic safety as seriously as they take this pandemic," Miller said, noting the 1,004 Tennesseans who have already been killed this year.

On Greenwood Avenue, neighbor Bendt is tired of replacing his fence.

"We've had two people directly run into our fence. One person came in this route [from the side], one person came in and almost hit our house [through the front]," he showed NewsChannel 5's Rebecca Schleicher. He fixed it a third time when a driver side-swiped the fence, hopping the curb.

He, like his neighbors, worry about the safety of their small children. Saying they love the neighborhood but hope the city invests in ways to slow drivers down who continue to cut through it.

Additional traffic calming is a big part of the Mayor's proposed transportation plan, which you can read here. But it will take 10 years to fully implement it if it passes through council, and will rely on current taxes and grants to fund.

A vote is expected in Metro Council toward the end of the year or early in 2021.