What’s the difference between a speed bump and a speed hump?
One letter in the alphabet, roughly one inch in height and — if you believe the Las Vegas Fire Department — life or death.
Fire officials say speed bumps can add as many as 10 crucial seconds to emergency vehicle response times, whereas humps might only add a few seconds.
Humps are usually around an inch shorter than bumps and between 12 and 14 feet in travel length, while their more familiar car-slowing cousin typically ranges between 4 and 6 inches tall and 1 to 3 feet in travel length.
For at least two years, the department has used bump-related lag time figures and portions of the Southern Nevada Fire Code to justify fire inspectors’ right to require hundreds of speed bump removals throughout the city, often at the cost of thousands of dollars to private business and property owners.
But research conducted by outside organizations and records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal suggest the cash spent to save those seconds might have been better used on measures such as more high-priority responses and better equipped intersections that could knock minutes off ambulances’ arrival times.
Records show Fire Department inspectors dinged 99 Las Vegas housing complexes and businesses for speed bump-related violations over the past two years. Fixing those tickets — either by removing the bumps or replacing them with larger humps — can cost as much as $20,000 per business.
In a town that consistently ranks among the United States’ most dangerous for pedestrians, traffic engineers admit there could be a human cost — maybe even pedestrian deaths — associated with letting ambulances and other drivers accelerate faster through commercial parking lots and neighborhoods.
Similar safety concerns over the impact of speed bump removals could help explain why more than two dozen private property owners have sought at least $226,900 in city funds to install code compliant humps since 2003.
Three applicants who saw the city pick up the tab for those installations happened to be friends or neighbors living near City Council members Bob Beers, Bob Coffin and Mayor Carolyn Goodman.
Most everyone else, it seems, is on their own when the bump removal bill comes due.
“I’ve been dancing a very careful dance with the Fire Department for three years,” said philanthropist and Veterans Village co-founder Arnold Stalk, who was asked to pull out his nonprofit’s speed bumps at a cost of around $20,000 in July.
That’s the same total the Review-Journal soon will shell out to replace its parking lot bumps at the Fire Department’s request, said Mark Hinueber, the newspaper’s vice president.
“Right now, we operate at around a $15,000 per month deficit, but they treat us like a hotel, like a business,” Stalk said. “What the city really should do and say is ‘What can we do to help you here?’ “
Speed bumps have been technically illegal in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, but until 2013, few at City Hall seemed to notice or care about the hundreds of asphalt bumps scattered within city limits.
It’s hard to say why the city decided to suddenly ramp up its campaign to remove or replace those bumps with humps.
If fire officials are looking to slash response times through those bump removals, it’s not at all clear they’re looking in the right place.
Department leaders say swapping bumps for humps can shave precious time off emergency responses, but none could provide a firm estimate of how much.
Reached for comment Monday, a spokesman said he wasn’t even sure where the department got its trumpeted 10-second speed bump lag time estimate.
Research published by the Washington D.C.-based Institute of Traffic Engineers suggests humps sometimes prove just as slow to navigate.
Lisa Fontana-Tierney, the institute’s traffic engineering senior director, pointed to an analysis of studies in three different cities that found speed humps slowed firetruck response times by up to 9.8 seconds — within two-tenths of a second of the time the Fire Department reports it takes to navigate a bump.
Confronted with those figures, a spokesman doubled down on officials’ claim that it takes longer to roll over a speed bump, explaining the department’s delay estimates might need to be revised upward to 20 seconds.
Fire officials in Clark County, North Las Vegas and Henderson, while aware of possible bump-related slowdowns, said they don’t go out of their way to have property owners pull out the obstacles.
Lights and sirens
There is at least one simpler, cheaper way to make up the seconds department officials say they waste negotiating speed bumps — eliminate the minutes some ambulances waste idling in traffic.
The Fire Department admits that not all city intersections are equipped with traffic signal pre-emption devices used to control red and green lights that emergency vehicles face at traffic intersections.
A 2005 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation found such systems reduced emergency vehicle accidents and saved up to “a few minutes” on responses handled by departments in Plano, Texas, St. Paul, Minn., and Fairfax County, Va.
Las Vegas Firefighters Local 1285 President Scott Johnson figures the city’s speed bump policy saves only a fraction of that time.
But he said something as simple as turning on lights and sirens could, in some cases, cut response times in half.
Johnson, a Fire Department captain, estimates the city runs 80 percent to 90 percent of its calls at “Code 3,” with lights blazing and sirens roaring. He guesses up to half of the rest of the city’s calls eventually turn into a Code 3 response.
If simply flipping on the lights and sirens for the remaining 5 percent or 10 percent of dispatches could cut response times by minutes, why would the department bother shaving seconds on speed bump removals residents have to pay for?
“I think it’s really a fire chief, fire protection, fire marshal sort of thing,” Johnson said of the policy. “The (City) Council members are the ones that adopt and enforce the fire code.
“I don’t write the code. I don’t adopt it.”
There’s no real discernible pattern to the city’s speed bump removal push.
Fire Department officials said they write up violations in the course of business fire inspections and won’t go out of their way to seek a speed bump’s removal unless it’s requested by a city ambulance crew.
Apartment complexes, churches, medical offices and nonprofits account for many of the sites cited for a violation over the past two years. Most of those locations lie east of U.S. Highway 95. Fewer than a dozen were in newer, more affluent housing tracts and shopping centers in such neighborhoods as Summerlin and Centennial Hills.
It might be that there is no rhyme or reason to the speed bump policy beyond the city’s desire to make sure everyone is following the rules.
If that’s the case, it would come as cold comfort to those footing the bill.
“It’s a cost we have to incur,” said Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority assistant property manager Amber Baltzley, who was cited for speed bumps on one authority property in July. “It’s not always fair, but we have to deal with it.”
Contact James DeHaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-478-3839. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.