Sound Off: Painting centerlines discourages responsible driving


In the interest of creating a safer road environment for all users, I would like to present a case to the Island County Commissioners to refrain from painting centerline road markings on the newly resurfaced Coles Road near Langley.

As a local urban designer specializing in active mobility, I commute around South Whidbey almost exclusively by bicycle and public transit. Generally, Coles is a road myself and most people riding bicycles would avoid almost entirely due to limited shoulders, blind corners, and the high speed of people driving cars. However after the recent resurfacing, I was curious to see if driver behavior had changed. In line with what we know about driver behavior, the road user experience on Coles Road was dramatically improved compared to the previous design.

Without centerline markings, the drivers observed on Coles Road drove at slower speeds than what had been observed before anecdotally. Without a double yellow centerline, they also yielded significantly more room to people on bicycles and people walking than had been observed prior. Research has shown that roads without centerlines can paradoxically, encourage drivers to exercise greater caution, reduce vehicle speed, and enhance safety.

A summary of research conducted by Transport for London and subsequent implementation reported by the BBC on this topic can be found here:

From a report from the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research titled, “Investigation of the Safety Effects of Edge and Centerline Markings on Narrow, Low-Volume Roads”:

A meta analysis concluded that “the effects of an edgeline on speed are related to the presence of a centerline. Further, applying only edgelines to a road that previously did not have any longitudinal pavement markings increases the speed of road users and removing previously marked centerlines and replacing them with edgelines decreases the speed.”

By refraining from painting centerlines, we can tap into the psychological phenomenon known as “perceived risk.” Drivers navigating an unmarked road perceive it as narrower, causing them to subconsciously slow down and become more attentive.

Moreover, the lack of centerlines encourages more responsible driver behavior, fostering an environment that is conducive to coexisting with people walking and cycling. We see a wonderful example of this on Second Street in downtown Langley. And I’m sure many of us have observed this phenomenon ourselves on unmarked residential streets around Whidbey Island.

I encourage all Whidbey Islanders to reimagine their streets as public spaces designed for everyone, not just cars. Designing for active mobility is imperative for our community’s health and well-being today, and for our sustainability long term.

In conclusion, I respectfully request that you delay the decision to paint centerlines on Coles Road. While centerlines may serve as a visual guide, they also have the unintended consequence of promoting higher speeds and diminished attentiveness among drivers. This delay will allow for further research, community input, and comprehensive analysis of the potential benefits and drawbacks.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I am confident that with careful deliberation, we can find a solution that best serves the interests of our community.

Basil Hassoun is an urban designer and a resident of Langley.