Should a single accident -- no matter how tragic its consequences -- justify adding a pair of traffic signals on a busy highway?
That's the question posed recently to Intrepid Commuter by Jerry Kelly, our inquisitive Reisterstown correspondent. It's a timely query, as we shall explain.
The signals in question have been installed, but not yet activated, on Route 140 (Westminster Road) between the end of Interstate 795 and the Carroll County line. Westminster Road is a five-lane highway, including the center turn lane through that area.
Our readers may recall that during a violent afternoon thunderstorm April 13, three people died in a collision on that stretch of road. A driver lost control of his northbound car, which skidded sideways across the road and into oncoming traffic.
Investigators ruled that the driver was going too fast for the slippery conditions. But the severity of the accident caused a public uproar. Within days, the State Highway Administration announced plans to make the two-mile stretch safer.
"From what I read in the paper the above accident took place on a wet road, speed could have been a factor, as well as driver error," Mr. Kelly writes. "I don't see how one, let alone two, traffic lights will solve the problem.
"Can we react to a problem by trying to have government do more when the problem could be the driver?"
This week, the SHA plans to turn on the new signals at Gores Mill Road and Brian Daniel Court/Woodfield Court. Officials believe they are justified as a first step in a long-term plan to make Route 140 safer.
Dick Harrison, the SHA's district engineer, says the $800,000 in improvements are not simply a response to the accident. Rather, they are intended to address problems that have been building for years: speed and congestion.
Coming off an interstate, motorists drive too fast on Route 140. And Carroll County's growth as a bedroom community has made it difficult for motorists on side streets to enter or cross the highway during rush hours.
"These are problems the community recognized long before the fatal accident," Mr. Harrison says. "The accident simply added fuel to the community's fire to get something done."
Workers soon will be installing an 8-foot-wide raised median down the center of the highway, eliminating the center turn lane from I-795 to Brian Daniel/Woodfield. The speed limit has been lowered from 55 mph to 50 mph.
The new median strip will block left turns except at the signals. To improve access to eastbound Route 140 from Nob Hill Park Drive, an abandoned section of the old Route 40 westbound has been converted for use as a "jug handle" at Woodfield Court.
Nob Hill drivers will turn right onto Route 140, travel down a new access lane and then turn off at the jug handle and onto Woodfield Court where they can make the left turn to eastbound Route 140.
The changes are expected to be completed in six weeks.
While signals may not have helped had they been installed when the accident occurred, the median likely would have prevented the head-on collision.
Mr. Harrison says there have been few objections to the plan. But he acknowledges it isn't a long-term solution to the highway's traffic problems. One possible answer being researched: installing a service road parallel to Route 140.
Hammered bridgewill get relief
A guy is banging himself on the head with a hammer when a concerned passer-by asks him why he's doing that. "Because it feels so good when I stop," he says.
We were reminded of that anecdote recently by retired cabbie John Keller, who can only imagine how a certain railroad overpass in Baltimore must feel after years of abuse. If bridges could talk, it would surely say, "Ouch."
The much-dented overpass can be found above Boston Street near O'Donnell Street. Its scars were inflicted by the numerous tractor-trailers that were unable to squeeze under its 11-foot clearance.
"I know of at least 10 accidents where this has happened," said Mr. Keller, a Fort Howard resident. "It never ceases to amaze. Trucks are stopped dead in their tracks, the back of the trailer peels halfway back or else the whole thing just mashes down."
Mr. Keller urges the city to install a better warning system, but public works spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt says the city plans to do better. Beginning next month, Boston Street will be rebuilt with a dip under the bridge.
At a cost of $1.8 million, a 400-foot-long section of Boston Street will be regraded to create a 13-foot clearance under the bridge. ++ The work is expected to take six months to complete. The Federal Highway Administration will foot most of the bill.
"Despite signs and flashing lights warning about clearance, tractor-trailers tried to pass under that bridge," Ms. Pyatt says. "We're going to resolve that problem by rebuilding the roadway."
* Fran Thomas would like to see a left-turn signal from southbound York Road to eastbound Cold Spring Lane. The city Public Works Department says a 1993 study of the intersection found cars find plenty of gaps in northbound traffic to make the turn.
* Look out for lane closures on Ritchie Highway at night. The SHA is resurfacing and upgrading Route 2 from Whites Road to '' Cypress Creek Road in Severna Park between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. and won't be finished until next spring.
* Note to police: Our recent column on people who illegally use the highway shoulder as a passing lane struck a chord with readers. We've received a hefty number of amens. Perhaps this deserves your attention?