by SC Associate Publisher Chuck Larsen
Traffic is mounting on the island, causing the City of Sanibel to issue its first traffic alert of the winter season Wednesday, Dec. 30, when 6,000 vehicles passed through the toll booths before 1 p.m. Police Chief Bill Dalton reminded drivers to follow the direction of law enforcement personnel otherwise known as traffic aids. It all begs the question: What would Sanibel traffic be without them?
It takes 5 to 12 traffic aids to help keep those thousands of vehicles moving on an island with zero traffic lights and allow the plethora of bicyclists to safely cross the busiest intersections. They are on their feet working an intersection in 30-minute rotations for 8 to 10 hour shifts in all weather conditions.
Sanibel Police Lieutenant Elizabeth Bulkema calls them “some of the hardest working employees.” In a typical shift during season, traffic aids can see up to 10,000 vehicles pass through an intersection. The goal is to give priority to westbound traffic in the mornings and eastbound traffic starting around 2 p.m.
Bulkema said the three intersections covered by traffic aids – Causeway Boulevard and Periwinkle Way, Casa Ybel Road and Periwinkle Way and Tarpon Road Road and West Gulf Drive – have different situational needs and they must be able to adjust to each of them.
Traffic was growing at a pace islanders and city council members were concerned about in 2016. The city launched traffic cameras in March of that year and the free Sanibel Bound traffic app for mobile devices the next year as parts of a comprehensive traffic initiative to combat the congestion.
But before technology were our traffic aids. Chief Dalton estimated the program began more than 40 years ago and aids are safe despite all the traffic. He said it has been more than two decades since an aid was involved in an accident with a vehicle.
“The only (accident) I’m aware of was 20 to 22 years ago when an aid was struck by a car and received minor injuries, and there have been no accidents since then,” he said.
Traffic aides are required to have a high school diploma, complete an eight-hour state traffic course and shadow an existing aid for up to five shifts before directing traffic solo. Some only last one season, but others have been on the job for six years or more. They range in age from 18 to 70 and earn $15 per hour.
Dalton urges drivers to “be patient” when traffic becomes congested. “Our number one priority is safety,” he said.