Opinion

Not so fast

Swampscott Town Meeting voted 111-84 on Monday night to defeat an article establishing 20 mph safety zones in town. Local drivers aren’t a bunch of lead-footed road ragers, but the Town Meeting vote last spring to establish a 25 mph town speed limit apparently tried the patience and driving sensibilities of meeting members just enough to soundly reject the 20 mph idea.

Safety zone proponents argued that limiting speeds in parts of town with pedestrian traffic made sense from a safety perspective. But drivers are already required to slow down in school zones and asking them to reduce their speed to a near-crawl in other parts of town ignores the real threat to pedestrians.

In the social media and mobile device age, almost every driver is a distracted driver — if even for a few seconds. One of the tools police officers use to educate drivers to avoid distraction is to warn them that the risk of an accident skyrockets if a driver is distracted for more than two seconds out of every six seconds behind the wheel.

Driving a car is no longer the simple focused act of climbing behind the wheel, turning the key and navigating safely along streets and roads. Technology in its many forms is inside the vehicle and inside the minds of drivers who may or may not be applying their full attention to steering a couple of tons worth of speeding metal down a road.

And it isn’t just the drivers who face distractions. Pedestrians risk life and limb by walking across streets with their senses and alertness muted by mobile device screens and music or conversation pouring into their heads through miniaturized earphones.

Strict standards about jaywalking, crossing only on a “walk” light, and even looking both ways on a street before crossing have been outpaced by an outsized sense of personal privilege. People driving and walking on public ways all too often subscribe to a “my way or the highway” philosophy of driving and walking.

The practice of politely yielding to another vehicle hasn’t disappeared but it is on the endangered species list for acceptable driving practices. Pedestrians young and old wear an invisible armor of self entitlement that they — sometimes with tragic consequences — think will protect them from a driver who is devoting 20 percent of his or her attention to the act of driving.

Add bicyclists to this mix and it is small wonder traffic accidents, including ones involving pedestrians, occur. The real way to create safety zones in Swampscott or any community for that matter is to combine education with enforcement.

Parents, police officers, teachers — anyone capable of commanding respect from young people — should drill home a zero tolerance attitude toward distracted driving and walking. This hardline attitude must rest on a foundation of “do as I do, not as I say.”

It’s up to adult drivers to look inward and ask, “Do I set a good example behind the wheel?” “Do I drive distracted?” “What’s my road rage threshold?” Honest answers to these questions will probably trouble more than a few drivers in Swampscott and any other community. But a few minutes of introspection could translate into an accident and tragedy avoided.

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