Stop still means don't go, but some drivers are fudging the rule

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

July 25, 1994

Halt. Desist. Stay. Hold. Freeze.

Intrepid Commuter could spend paragraphs offering synonyms for the word, "stop," and thus fill a column without having to spend our valuable time in research (beyond cracking our Webster's New World Thesaurus) when summer vacation beckons.

But, alas, this would no doubt perturb faithful reader Robert C. Tompkins who frets that "stop" no longer seems to mean much to Beltway commuters getting off the outer loop onto northbound Dulaney Valley Road.

For those unfamiliar with good old Exit 27B, the alignment is not typical. Motorists leaving the Beltway confront a stop sign at Hampton Estate Lane and make a left turn to Dulaney Valley.

Mr. Tompkins says drivers often don't stop. Others stop, he writes, and then pull out right in front of oncoming traffic.

"This is not a rush-hour problem; the commuters know what they're doing," the Towson resident writes. "Perhaps some unobtrusive police observation might have a salutary effect. Other remedies might be a flashing red light or oversize stop signs or an early warning sign."

For an answer we sought the counsel of the sage Darrell Wiles, the engineer who handles such matters as stop signs and signals for the State Highway Administration in Baltimore County.

He doesn't dispute the fact that many people are failing to stop at the stop sign. But he does question whether that poses a significant safety hazard.

A review of police accident reports from 1988 through 1992 uncovered only three accidents at that intersection.

What is frequently happening, Mr. Wiles suggests, is that people are making the left turn in bunches when openings appear in traffic. Strictly speaking, this is illegal, but it does not suggest that motorists are unaware of the stop sign.

Of course that raises an issue: Why not, as Mr. Tompkins suggests, gently remind drivers of the need to stop by using oversized signs or flashing lights?

Mr. Wiles sees it as a boy-who-cried-wolf problem. Use such techniques in marginal situations, and they will no longer grab the attention of motorists facing truly dangerous intersections.

"We save those hits over the head for those conditions where they are absolutely necessary," Mr. Wiles says. "We don't use flashing lights as gentle reminders."

As for police intervention, the accident rates don't seem to warrant it, but we passed along Mr. Tompkins' complaint to both the Baltimore County Police Department and state police for their consideration.

Cars turning left stay side by side

Mrs. E. of Glenwood has a plum job for Intrepid.

Well, that may be a bit misleading. (Ever notice how the attention-grabbing first sentence of our columns always are?) She actually has a "Plumtree" job for us.

She isn't happy with the intersection of U.S. 40 and Plumtree Drive in Ellicott City. Her complaint centers on the crossover lane in the median that allows traffic on westbound U.S. 40 to make the left turn to Plumtree.

"There is a great deal of traffic that uses this crossover, approximately 75 percent of which make a U-turn to travel east on Route 40 and the other 25 percent crossing over onto Plumtree," writes Mrs. E., who doesn't want her name in the newspaper.

"The problem is that the crossover is wide enough to hold at least two cars -- the one waiting to make a U-turn and the other waiting to cross U.S. 40.

"However, the left side of the crossover is unpaved. After a rain, it is particularly messy. Why can't the highway department do a good paving job here to move the traffic along efficiently?"

Well, Mrs. E., the obvious answer is that the words, "efficiency" and "highway department" have never been particularly compatible. We had a devil of a time getting the computer to digest that sentence.

Nevertheless, we presented this situation to Gene Straub, the State Highway Administration traffic engineer for Howard County. He says the SHA could pave the median but believes that would be a mistake.

First, he sets the record straight. According to a recent count of traffic, the left-turn and U-turn options are nearly equally popular. At peak hour, there are 118 vehicles turning to Plumtree; 104 making the U-turn.

If you allowed two cars to be on the crossover at one time, one would block the other from seeing eastbound U.S. 40 traffic. That's particularly important because U-turn traffic doesn't have merge lane to accelerate onto the highway.

But thanks to Mrs. E.'s letter, the SHA has decided to do more to discourage the use of the grassy area. Within a month, crews will install 4-foot-tall flexible posts to keep cars off the grass.

"We think having two cars there compromises safety," Mr. Straub says. "If we had a good acceleration lane in the median, what she says makes sense but we haven't had the kind of problems there that would justify that expense."

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