Howard seeking solutions for dangerous stretch of road

College Avenue is scene of recent deadly crash

August 25, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

As it winds up out of Ellicott City, College Avenue is one of Howard County's most scenic roads and also is one of the most dangerous.

Along the way are a series of tight blind curves, followed by a succession of hills, the steepest of which resembles a roller-coaster, as drivers climb one side unable to see the next dip until they crest the hill to drive down.

If drivers choose to push the speed limit (posted at 25 mph), they can feel the drops in their stomachs. With enough speed, they can launch their cars into the air.

Teen-age drivers love the curves and seven sharp rises between New Cut Road and Bonnie Branch Road. All too frequently, they love them so much that they send mailboxes flying or they wreck their cars. Sometimes, they die.

A week ago, two Anne Arundel teen-agers were killed and two Baltimore youths were injured while driving on the College Avenue hills. Now, county officials and residents are considering again what can be done to make the road safer, while maintaining its rural beauty.

"It is a very dangerous stretch," said Capt. Gary Jones, a spokesman for the county Department of Fire and Rescue Services. He said his department responds to accidents on College Avenue once or twice a year and knows they are likely to be severe. Seven times in seven years, the rescues have involved people trapped in wrecked cars.

Howard County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, who represents Ellicott City, happened to be driving on College Avenue as police and emergency workers were responding to the latest deadly crash.

A call for action

Shaken by the scene, Merdon asked to meet last week with County Executive James N. Robey, county Chief of Police G. Wayne Livesay, and James M. Irvin, the public works director, to discuss what might be done about College Avenue.

The road's seven hills "are known throughout Maryland as a challenging driving course," Merdon said. "Most accidents that happen there involve teen-agers."

The group "challenged the director of public works to explore options ... to make College Avenue safer," he said.

"I can't make the road flat, that's impossible," said Robey, who remembers responding to fatal accidents on College Avenue when he was a police officer.

He added that the people in the most recent accident were going more than 65 mph, so there is little that could have helped them.

Nevertheless, he said he is willing to look again at the problem.

A scenic beauty

Irvin plans to offer suggestions in about a month, but has no specific suggestions now. He believes any specific proposals would have to be discussed at a public meeting and require the the Board of Public Works' approval.

He also faces the challenge of preserving the atmosphere and appearance of College Avenue, which the county has designated as a scenic road.

"We are going to evaluate what the possibilities are for traffic calming, what we can do to modify road design to reduce the attraction as a racecourse," Irvin said.

The key is exerting some influence over drivers.

"In general, if you drive [College Avenue] at the posted speed and follow warnings, it is fairly safe," Irvin said.

"It appears there is a tradition with young people - almost a rite of passage - to drive that road at a very high rate of speed."

Maryland drivers ages 16 to 20 have the highest number of fatal accidents, according to a report from the state Office of Traffic and Safety.

"At a young age, everyone thinks they're invincible," said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration.

In 2000, 124 fatal accidents in Maryland involved drivers ages 16 to 20, Buck said. Howard County ranked sixth in the state in accidents involving drivers in that age range.

Young drivers beware

That youthful recklessness hits home along College Avenue.

"It is one of the most accident-prone parts of the county," said Norm Powell, an engineer who lives on College Avenue, near Bonnie Branch Road. "It's the younger crowd who want some thrills."

Residents hear cars speeding on the road late at night. Drivers have spun out into Powell's driveway and have wiped out his and his neighbors' mailboxes a number of times. One family was prompted to use a stake the size of a telephone pole to hold their mailbox, and a car ended up wrapped around that one, said Powell.

With additional subdivisions planned along College Avenue (more than 100 units are planned, according to a county Department of Planning and Zoning database), more danger likely is ahead, said Shelley Wygant, a College Avenue resident.

She and Powell are members of the Patapsco Scenic Triangle Neighborhood Association.

"It's going to be more traveled," Wygant said. "The chances of [reckless drivers] hitting someone else are greater."

At the same time, "nobody out [on College Avenue] wants big changes," Powell said. People "moved out there because they like it."

Powell hates speed bumps, which have been used to slow traffic in other areas, but he is in favor of more signs at dangerous spots. "Certainly with some flashing warning at the critical places, the message would get across," he said.

His sister, Lillian Powell, who lives with him, would like to see more police activity.

"People use this area to freak out in their cars," she said.

"We've got to balance the aesthetics with a proper amount of safety," said Mike Smith, who lives on College Avenue closer to Ellicott City.

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