Safety first

September 01, 1992

Baltimore County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a generally well-meaning politician who fancies himself a part-time traffic engineer, is at it again.

During the past several months, Mr. Riley has experimented with traffic patterns in Towson, to mixed results. Now a group of about 60 Lutherville residents has persuaded the 4th District Republican to draft a law that would prohibit Central Light Rail engineers from blowing their air horns at the line's Seminary Avenue crossing.

The group says the noisy horn blasts early in the morning and late at night are making life miserable for people with homes near the crossing. Their complaint echoes those of other light-rail neighbors. Residents of Baltimore's Woodberry community, for instance, claim they are subjected to the obnoxious sound of the horn hundreds of times each day. Clearly not discriminating against city or county, the light-rail horn is an equal opportunity annoyer.

Yet, as Mass Transit Administration officials point out, the horn serves an important purpose: It alerts automobile drivers and pedestrians near the crossing that a 107-ton train is about to barrel through at 40 miles per hour.

The Lutherville residents argue that lowered gates, clanging bells and flashing signal lights at the crossing are warning enough. But this is the same spot where drivers circumvented the lowered gate when it repeatedly became stuck in that position last spring. Nothing beats the horn blast as the true convincer for drivers and walkers that a train is coming, particularly in the wee hours when folks are less likely to be at maximum alertness.

A recent study by the Federal Transit Administration suggests that an especially strong emphasis should be placed on safety where light-rail lines are concerned. The study found this type of line has an accident rate 100 times worse than does the average subway line, the obvious reason being that light-rail trains often pass through grade crossings such as the one at Seminary Avenue. As might be expected, most light-rail accidents involve collisions with cars or pedestrians. Since Los Angeles opened a 22-mile light-rail line two years ago, six people have been killed there in accidents.

MTA director Ron Hartman says light-rail engineers are trying to use shorter horn blasts. This seems to be the best compromise solution. Silencing the horns might stop some people from tossing and turning in bed, but increasing the chance of a fatal mishap is really something to lose sleep over.

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