IT'S RED, an eight-sided shield sitting on a post at the intersection. The four-letter word in white capital letters is one that most people have learned by the time they are out of diapers.
The object in question -- I hope it didn't puzzle anyone -- is a stop sign. It tells motorists (and bicyclists) to come to a one-second stop and look before proceeding into the intersection.
The purpose is to prevent accidents, with other vehicles and with pedestrians.
It is also an effective means of controlling the speed of traffic, along with that rectangular white sign with the legal speed limit in big black numerals.
Solving the wrong problem
They work if motorists obey the law and the law is enforced. And that is the problem: not enough voluntary compliance, not enough enforcement.
But instead of increasing enforcement, Harford County and its towns are looking to more complicated measures: putting obstructions in the middle of roads to force cars to slow down.
Jolt the wheel alignment and undercarriage and that precarious muffler clamp, boosting repair bills. Promote panic braking by less capable drivers. Prod the public to choose routes that are less damaging to their autos, regardless of how safely and legally they drive.
We used to elect officials who pledged to fill potholes and pave our rutted roads. We lobbied them for stop signs and traffic lights at dangerous crossings. We demanded safer roads and smoother roads. Now these officials are pushing the idea of purposely putting down rougher roads and speed humps. "Traffic calming device" is the egregious euphemism given to these inclined-slab traffic disturbers.
They are much more expensive than stop signs. Their durability in our extremes of weather is highly questionable; we are skeptical of assurances that snow plows and street sweepers won't dislodge the humps, nor will their blades and brushes be harmed.
We can attest to the fact that they can slow conscientious drivers. But so do stop signs and speed limit signs.
What the "traffic calmers" don't slow down are trucks and "utility" vehicles with large tires and any car driven by a person (typically a younger one) with no concern for the physical integrity of the vehicle. Many speeders will ignore the effects of these humps (low-rise relatives to industrial-strength speed bumps in parking lots, which require complete stops) or delight in the "off-road" undulations of the public pavement.
We've also heard young skateboarders welcome these devices as an aid to performing their stunts.
You can find a series of these engineered impediments in the middle of East Ring Factory Road, southeast of Bel Air. It may be argued that these "calmers" are appropriate in rare cases, on long, straight neighborhood streets that lack a four-way intersection where a stop sign or traffic light could be erected.
But the Ring Factory example shows that they are of questionable value. Three-way stop signs farther up that road work better to slow traffic. The start of the speed humps at Redbrook Court is marked by perhaps the most dangerous and poorly designed traffic island in Harford County. Huge cabin cruiser boats are parked illegally on the road, with apparent official indifference. In short, little attention to overall traffic safety.
Aberdeen's city council recently approved placing these devices two streets as a test. The town council of Bel Air is considering installation on three streets, after trying them out on a road leading to the public works department.
There is a real concern that speed humps are becoming a fashionable fix-all for traffic engineers eager to spend more money. Witness the old-time European (and District of Columbia) traffic circles that are again in vogue.
The Harford body politic ought to take due warning from the fact that traffic calming devices have taken root in trendy, affluent Takoma Park and Columbia.
What will it do?
Engineers say the gradual 3-inch rise is gentle enough not to disturb the working parts of a normal auto, provided the legal speed is not exceeded. But what effect, if any, will it have on a bTC speeding vehicle?
It sounds like the traffic gurus are trying to have it both ways: noticeable impact for bad drivers, no impact for good drivers. Our experience is that these flat-topped humps can definitely rattle an old car that you're trying to keep on the road a few more years. And they're virtually no deterrent for a speeding Jeep.
Many residential areas where speed limits are uniformly broken see other dangerous driving violations, as well. Vigorous police enforcement is needed to break the pattern and citizens should demand it. Traffic tickets have a notably jarring impact on the pocketbook, insurance rates and the driver's license of violators. Hardly calming, but certainly more effective.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.