Route 97 traffic concerns parents Area residents want speeding controlled near adjacent schools

November 02, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A school bus loaded with children waits to turn left into Bushy Park Elementary School on Route 97 in Glenwood as traffic speeds by on a weekday morning. The bus waits a little longer. A dump truck rumbles past, then another grinds by. Then a BMW hums along, the driver speaking on a cellular phone.

The bus still waits. The BMW uses the shoulder to pass a truck. The line of traffic stays solid. About a minute later, the bus uses a short gap between a minivan and another dump truck to make its turn.

It's not just the amount of traffic that has parents of children attending Glenwood schools worried -- it's also the speed.

In front of Bushy Park Elementary and Glenwood Middle schools, next-door neighbors on Route 97, the often-exceeded speed limit is 45 mph. That has parents demanding lower limits and more traffic signals from the state and county authorities who govern these roads.

"I see people flying by here," said Sharon Whiteley, 49, whose son is a Bushy Park fifth-grader. "Why isn't the speed limit 25 mph like at all the other schools I know?"

Disagreement over danger

The answer those parents get: It's just not that simple. Many State Highway Administration traffic engineers contend that lower speed limits and flashing lights on heavily traveled roads -- as Route 97 has become in the past decade -- actually make things more dangerous.

"Sometimes common sense isn't right," said John Concannon, assistant district engineer for the SHA. "There's a lot more that goes into it. People usually go the speed they're comfortable with anyway."

That attitude bothers many parents of children at these schools. A group of parents met with SHA officials last week.

"Whenever we raise the issue of safety, the State Highway Administration seems more concerned about the flow of traffic on 97," said Laura Mettle, Bushy Park's PTA president and one of those who met with SHA engineers Tuesday.

Citing auto accidents a quarter-mile up the road, as well as increasing traffic and speeding, parents have been pushing SHA for years to lower the limit during school opening and closing, and install traffic signals or flashing warning lights.

Awaiting disaster

Many fear that it will take a disaster to get something done.

"That's how traffic safety legislation is passed," said Stephanie Faul, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "It will take a hideous tragedy, some child getting hit. Then people will think it's a good idea."

Said Carolyn Roeding, chairwoman of the SHA School Zone Safety Task Force: "The engineers think the speed limit should be whatever the road is designed to handle.

"They talk about the 85th-percentile speed, what people are comfortable driving," she said. "But sometimes they don't seem to take road conditions into account, or buses or children. That's what parents think."

Danger might increase

Concannon said lower speed limits, flashing lights and stop signals might cause more accidents because they distract drivers.

He said engineers use a complicated formula involving the amount and kinds of traffic, its speed and patterns to decide speed limits and when to install traffic signals. The formula calls for no change in front of the two schools.

Three decades ago, when these two schools were built, roads like Route 97 did not handle nearly the amount of traffic that a booming Howard County dumps on them today -- an increase in traffic of about 2 percent a year for the past 10 years.

"It certainly has the potential to be dangerous," said Sgt. Pete D'Antuono, head of the Howard County police traffic unit.

"Anything can happen there," he said of the two schools on Route 97. "Someone could lose control in traffic, or an operator might not be paying attention."

To help keep drivers' attention, Howard County schools, in conjunction with the Department of Public Works, will install flashing school-zone signals at 10 schools on county roads in the next year. Fifteen schools already have signals, and in four years, all 35 elementary schools will have them.

County engineers say they're installing the signals because new technology has lowered their costs, the number of schools has grown incredibly during the past 10 years and traffic is increasing.

But those are schools on county roads. Eleven of 63 Howard County schools are on state roads -- like Route 97 -- and the county has no jurisdiction over traffic control in front of them.

No school zone law

Many states have laws limiting speed in school zones to 25 mph. Maryland is not one of them.

Virginia law calls for a 25-mph limit wherever there's a flashing light, a school zone sign or a school crossing signal, said Lt. William Terry of the Virginia State Police.

"I'm really surprised there hasn't been an uproar over those limits in your state," Terry said. "Historically, there has been an effort to reduce limits like that."

So far, relatively few serious accidents have occurred in school zones across the state, said Sgt. Laura Lu Herman of the Maryland State Police.

The area in front of the Bushy Park and Glenwood schools has seen only minor accidents, said Howard County police.

While most police officers and school administrators would like to lower limits, they also say they aren't traffic engineers, who are qualified to make those decisions.

Still, the lower limits are backed by many of those who fight the traffic every school day -- the bus drivers.

"Trying to pull across that traffic with a bus isn't easy," said bus driver Brenda Zirkle, 40. "You have no idea how hard it is when it's foggy or rainy."

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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