How badly do we want to save lives on Route 6?

Two bad Route 6 accidents in Wellfleet within three days in mid-August injured several, killed one (the second fatality in two years) and tied up traffic for hours. As we say after every such terrible accident, this is unacceptable.

The next selectmen’s meeting focussed on what to about Route 6. As Rep. Sarah Peake, who spoke at the meeting, put it: “There’s got to be something we can do.”

You’d like to think so. But we’ve been here before.

A working group of town and state highway officials that, according to Peake, will meet in mid-September to discuss Route 6. They might want to start with the apparent reality that although we would like to prevent fatalities, we don’t seem to want it as much as we want some other things.

There is of course an outpouring of grief for the well- known local woman who died, as there was last year for the teenager killed as he crossed the highway on a bike.

But most of the public outrage and most of the selectmen’s questioning of the police and fire chiefs at the meeting had to do with why it took so long to get traffic moving again.

In a sense the two concerns, saving lives and expediting traffic, are in competition. Accidents are a function of too many cars going too fast on the highway.

If it were just a matter of saving lives, which some would say ought to be the prime concern, we could make some obvious moves. We could bring the speed limit down—to the 40 of Eastham, or even 30. As low as it takes to make it safer.

We could, as some have suggested, erect a solid barrier down the middle to eliminate head-on crashes (as in big city highways).

But lowering the speed limit wouldn’t address the need to get somewhere fast. And people trying to get onto the road and on their way in either direction in the most efficient way possible wouldn’t accept a solid barrier.

(After a horrendous head-on collision of two cars filled with five local residents in 1997 the speed limit in Wellfleet was lowered from 50 to the current 45. Even Wellfleet’s police chief complained, “It’s awfully slow…It’s just annoying.”)

What we’ve always had is a country highway with a speed limit consistent with highway expectations and unlimited access from side roads. Presumably, it’s how we like it. You could argue that the lack of safety improvement over the years is tacit acceptance of the unintended consequences of such a road.

Is it time to radically redesign the road–and with it the quality of our lives?

A former selectman in the 90s, as part of the discussion of the Suicide Alley problem, seriously proposed replacing quaint Route 6 all the way to P’town with an Interstate-style, divided, limited access highway. To him, a longtime resident, it seemed the only sensible thing to do.

It was not a popular idea. And no attention was paid to it.

But we could do that. If we wanted badly enough to save lives.

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