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By Kyle Munzenrieder
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By Terrence McCoy
5:14 p.m.: Then through red at SW 27th Avenue.
5:17 p.m.: At northbound entrance to I-95, two large, American-built vehicles block test car's path. Neither has attained Minimum Acceptable Speed (MAS) of 65 mph. Analyst sounds horn. Tailgates. Flashes headlights. Analyst finally passes on right and, as per Miami Driving Rules, makes obscene gestures toward the cars' elderly drivers.
5:19 p.m.: Analyst exits I-95 at SE Second Avenue in a right-turn-only lane, and thus is forced to burn rubber off the line after light turns green. Analyst zips through intersection, cutting in front of Chrysler LeBaron and its hapless driver.
5:21 p.m.: Analyst pulls test car into New Times parking lot. Checks drive time (18:04:27). Considers the seven minutes and three seconds saved through automotive elan. Takes a deep drag on unfiltered Lucky Strike. Exhales. Checks hair in rearview mirror. Revels in previously unnoticed resemblance to Michael Andretti.
Yes, Sheldon Pivnik.
Chief of the county's Traffic Signs and Signals Division, Pivnik is a man beset by demons others call misdemeanors: rolling stops, illegal U-turns, flagrant disregard for signage. And as one would expect, he delves straight to the heart of the red-light bugaboo. "People generally run lights because they're trying to make time," ventures Pivnik. "What they're doing, in essence, is extending their own green interval by using the other drivers' red interval. I don't think there is a true engineering solution. It's beyond our control. We have the same problem here at the end of our driveway. We have to tell visitors to our office complex, `Make sure you look both ways before you proceed on a green.' Even the fire department is real careful and they can pre-empt lights."
Pivnik says his department has conducted all kinds of timing studies and alternative lighting schemes in an attempt to ameliorate the problem. Back in 1971 the division even experimented with a "countdown" signal that displayed the number of seconds until a light turned red. (The demonstration was halted, Pivnik recalls, after a driver transformed the test site into a drag strip, zooming ahead to beat a light and causing an accident.)
"I'll be frank," Pivnik says with chilling frankness: "We are not unique. I've seen the same thing in Dallas and Boston. And those are just the cities I've been in recently."
But according to traffic statisticians, Dade drivers are unique, at least in their ghoulish tendency to transform lickety split into lickety splat. Of major metropolitan areas, Miami ranks among the top five on the insurance industry's actuarial ledger -- behind perennial powerhouses New York and Los Angeles -- with a grand total of 93,674 accidents in 1990. The National Safety Council's "Traffic Facts 1990" also lists the city of Miami as number one in fatalities in a survey of 26 American municipalities.
The grim scoresheet comes as no surprise to Ken Durce, head traffic operations engineer for Dade's Department of Transportation. "It's frightening," confesses Durce over the fluorescent hum that bathes his honeycombed corps of engineers. "I'm sometimes scared to load my family into the car and drive across town."
Durce attributes the local insouciance toward red lights in part to Miami's melting-pot character. "To be honest, we've got a lot of people here who are not familiar with North American driving habits," says the DOT engineer. "Add to that the tourist factor and the elderly population, and it's dynamite. We've tried to correct dangerous lights, but the accident patterns don't change."
Road engineers have struggled especially to keep pace with Dade's booming southwestern flank, expansion that has meant, for instance, that South Dixie Highway must accommodate up to 60,000 cars per day, when it was designed to handle fewer than 40,000. At the Marlin Road intersection in Cutler Ridge, engineers installed a green arrow to allow left-turn traffic a "protected phase." The measure had virtually no effect.
In accord with fellow engineers, Durce maintains that the onus of reforming lead-foot drivers lies with law enforcement, a view shared by Dade's beleaguered traffic units. "The chances of getting caught on a red-light violation are so slim most people don't think twice," concedes Lt. Bailey Green, head of Metro police's traffic unit. "You take our department and spread them out over sixteen-hour shifts across a county this big and you can see how thin we are." Cut from nearly 50 patrolling officers two decades ago to 17 today, the traffic squad makes up just one percent of the county police force's 1700 uniformed officers, compared to five to ten percent in other major cities. Green attributes the erosion of his staff to Dade's violent upswing in crime.
Metro's Sgt. Duane Dorn remembers a misty yesteryear when guys were guys, dolls were dolls, and traffic laws were obeyed like, well, laws. He says the decriminalization of traffic violations in 1976 put a major dent in the deterrent factor. "If you had a bald tire and a bad attitude, you could go to jail. Then word came down from the legislature that we could no longer make arrests or take licenses," Dorn fumes. "They made the system more lax for expediency's sake. Nowadays drivers know they can break the law and not even get a point for it [on their driving record]." Dorn cites his tenure in the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) -- which cut accident rates by ten percent in 1980, its first and last year of existence -- as his proudest moment.