Safety panel considers methods to slow traffic

March 01, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

It's not violence or drugs, it's not the bad guys who rob banks, hot-wire cars or snatch purses that Howard residents complain about the most.

No, according to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, it's reckless drivers. And he has the mail to prove it.

Of the hundreds of letters Mr. Ecker receives each month, he says the majority of them are traffic complaints. "I get a lot of calls and letters," Mr. Ecker said. "Speeding is a very bad problem."

Many of the complaints come from people who fear that speeders and drivers who routinely run stop signs or ignore traffic signals are a threat to their children and others in residential areas.

"In residential areas, speeding is a serious problem," said Ed Walter, the county's chief of traffic engineering. "A higher speed makes a difference whether an accident is fatal or not."

"There's a lot more opportunity for accidents in residential areas," said Catherine Hill, who chairs the Traffic Safety Committee that Mr. Ecker appointed last fall. "Sometimes you can't get out of your own driveway because people are whizzing by. It's that type of aggravation."

The 15-member committee, which meets twice a month, includes citizens, officials from the county's police and public works departments and the Board of Education and a representative from the state's attorney's office.

The panel is reviewing posted speed limits throughout the county to see whether they should be updated and evaluating traffic counts in problem areas to see whether there's enough traffic to warrant installing devices to slow traffic, said Ms. Hill, who works as the chief of transportation services at Fort Meade.

"It's a universal problem," said James Irvin, director of public works. "Every roadway has some speeding on it. The question is, what do you do about it?"

Mr. Walter said there are speed measuring devices embedded in many roads and at traffic lights throughout the county. They include electric traffic counters composed of compressible rubber tubes that interpret the average speed of traffic by recording the time it takes vehicles to pass over both tubes.

County traffic studies have shown that if the speed limit is 25 mph, motorists tend to drive 35 to 38 mph. On some streets, a 25 mph limit is probably too low, Mr. Irvin said.

But residents along Thunderhill Road in east Columbia, for instance, resisted an effort by the county two years ago to increase the 25 mph speed limit in that area to 30 mph because of the high volume of traffic.

"People don't drive that slowly to begin with," Mr. Irvin said. "That's an unrealistic expectation by the community to begin with, and it's hard to enforce."

County police have initiated a number of traffic enforcement programs to curb the number of unsafe drivers, particularly speeders.

The latest effort for February and March, the "Chiefs' Challenge," is being conducted by more than 40 law enforcement agencies statewide. The goal is to encourage drivers to use seat belts and child safety seats and to cut down on the number of accidents.

"Having a car stolen is an inconvenience. Speeding drivers are a direct concern," said Sgt. Glenn Hansen, who heads the county police department's traffic enforcement section.

"We have to slow people down or lives will be lost," Sergeant Hansen said.

"When you're inside a vehicle, you feel secure. Some drivers don't realize the risk they put themselves and others in when they speed," he said.

Last fall, police started a pedestrian student safety program in which police in marked and unmarked cars monitor the speed of motorists driving near schools.

In addition to better enforcement, the Traffic Safety Committee is considering other changes, including building traffic circles at busy intersections, installing speed bumps and pedestrian peninsulas, and extending sidewalks.

Also under review is narrowing some streets from 40 feet to 20 feet, which would give pedestrians a shorter and safer distance to cross a street and force motorists to slow down.

"Police can't be everywhere," Mr. Walter said. "Geometric changes to the road can control the speed of a vehicle 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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