Center-line 'rumble strips' send a wake-up call to motorists

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

January 30, 1995

BZZZZZZZZT. BZZZZZZZZZZZT. BZZZZZZZZZZZZT.

What's that? Did you hear that? What an irritating noise!

WHAT IN BLAZES WAS THAT!

BZZZZZZZZT. BZZZZZZZZZZZT. BZZZZZZZZZZZZT.

Friends, that noise, that teeth-rattling, stomach-turning, eye-popping noise could be the sound of your life being saved.

In lay terms, it is politely saying to you: "WAKE UP, BUSTER! YOUR CAR IS SPEEDING ACROSS THE CENTER LINE INTO ONCOMING TRAFFIC, AND IF YOU DON'T DO SOMETHING RIGHT AWAY, THAT OVERBITE YOU'VE ALWAYS BEEN SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT WILL PRETTY MUCH BE THE LEAST OF YOUR PROBLEMS."

If you receive that message in this state, then you are on Route 90, that 12-mile stretch of road between U.S. 50 and Coastal Highway in Ocean City. Specifically, you have drifted onto what is called a "rumble strip," a series of grooves cut into the no-man's land separating the eastbound and westbound traffic.

Rumble strips along the shoulders of the nation's highways are credited with a decrease in the number of serious accidents by alerting sleepy motorists when they are driving off the roads. Still, Maryland is apparently the only state to have experimented with rumble strips in the medians of two-lane roads.

In fact, Maryland highway officials say their median rumble strips along Route 90 are no longer an experiment at all. They are a rousing success.

"Ever since we put them in 10 years ago, there has been a marked decrease in severe accidents of people crossing the center line," said Tom Hicks, director of the State Highway Administration's office of traffic and safety.

As Mr. Hicks explained, the rumble strip not only makes a noise but it also vibrates to alert drivers by sound as well as sensation that they are heading for trouble. (Although the strips on Route 90 are grooves, Maryland uses a variation on the shoulders of other highways, where it installs materials above the road that create a similar sound and feel.)

The first strips were cut into Route 90 in 1985 and then along the rest of the roadway, minus bridge decks, by 1989.

The results, highway officials say, have been dramatically positive.

In 1987, there were seven accidents involving cars crossing the center line on Route 90, and in 1988, there were eight. But in 1989, after the rumble strips were installed, there was only one such accident, in 1990 another one, and in 1991, only two.

Last spring, the state finished the job, putting rumble strips on all Route 90's bridge decks.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hicks said, the use of median rumble strips is not a success that can be duplicated on other Maryland roads. It is suitable only for center-line highways of a certain length (long enough to run the risk of having sleepy drivers on them).

But Mr. Hicks said, Maryland is looking to increase the number of strips along shoulders. So you may hear that annoying noise more often, or, best of all -- if you're alert -- not at all.

An annoyance in Intrepid's realm

Sally Palmbaum, a volunteer at Center Stage, called recently about a regular irritation in her life.

"I would like to know why when you're traveling south on Guilford Avenue, there is no right turn on red going onto Monument Street," she said. She correctly noted that there is no cross traffic there. Monument is interrupted to the east of Guilford by a parking lot under the Jones Falls Expressway.

In the interest of full disclosure, The Intrepid Commuter must acknowledge that Ms. Palmbaum has put her finger on a daily nuisance in our own existence. Alert readers undoubtedly have already realized that the 200 block of Monument is site of The Baltimore Sun's parking garage, the home-away-from-home, that is, of the Intrepid's own vehicle.

We, too, find ourselves daily sitting at the corner of Guilford and Monument, impatiently drumming our fingers on the steering wheel and stewing over this seemingly senseless prohibition against our being on our way.

Thusly aggrieved, we packaged our complaint with Ms. Palmbaum's and set off for an explanation from Vanessa Pyatt, the spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works. Unfortunately, she had one.

The prohibition against the right turn onto Monument is not to avoid crashes from the nonexistent traffic coming from the east. Rather, Ms. Pyatt said, it is to protect state highway administration workers who park under the JFX and then must walk across Guilford Avenue to their offices in the 700 block of Calvert St.

"We posted that sign [No Right Turn on Red] for their safety," Ms. Pyatt said.

Certainly The Intrepid Commuter has no desire to extinguish state employees on our way to work or even on the way home. We must say, however, that if there is a great deal of foot traffic across that intersection, neither we nor Ms. Palmbaum have seen it.

Not to be churlish, we must also note that it was little comfort two years ago when the city changed the sign to allow a right turn before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. (but only from the service lane). Our Intrepidness has no intention of working nights!

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