Impatient pedestrians ignoring danger signs

Risk: Like similar suburban roadways, Ritchie Highway is an `extremely lethal' area for walkers.

April 05, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Keisha Smith teeters on the sliver of a median on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie, tapping her open-toed high heels as trucks whiz by at 50 mph. The Baltimore housekeeper waits two minutes, then three, then runs across two lanes - past a sign warning pedestrians to use the crosswalk.

"I didn't want to miss my bus," Smith, 26, explains. "I missed one earlier, crossing at the light."

Smith and dozens of other pedestrians who dart daily across one of the state's busiest highways risk much more than that.

In the past three years, six pedestrians have died on the 10-mile stretch of Route 2 from the Baltimore border to Glen Burnie's end near Jumpers Hole Road. The latest victim died March 19 - just a few feet from the Motor Vehicle Administration, where Smith was crossing the street on a recent morning.

"It's an environment, like many others in the suburbs, that is extremely lethal for people who choose to walk or who have to walk," said George Branyan, pedestrian safety coordinator with the Maryland Highway Safety Office. "Ritchie Highway is very typical of the worst."

Of the 105 pedestrians killed in Maryland every year, more than half die while attempting to walk along state or federal highways. Other pedestrian-unfriendly roads include Liberty Road in Baltimore County, where three people were killed in a three-month stretch in 2002; and U.S. 40, where a pedestrian was killed in November in the Catonsville area.

Branyan blames suburban sprawl. Though the strip malls and hotels along Ritchie Highway employ some workers reliant on public transportation, the road clearly favors the cars.

At the MVA, for example, the "walk" signal lasts only eight seconds before it flashes a red hand - telling those who have started to continue walking, and everyone else to wait. The flashing light continues for about 20 seconds, giving a pedestrian about 30 seconds to cross four lanes of traffic.

In contrast, drivers have more than two minutes to sail through a green light.

State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck said 30 seconds should be enough time to cross. But even with adjustments to the signal over the years, he said, Route 2 has "significant issues" - among them a high percentage of drivers running red lights and many pedestrians.

"You've got a large variety and mix of high-speed traffic, signals, businesses, every conceivable mix of motorists and pedestrians at one time," Buck said. "People make up time they've lost during the day in their car, and they do it at the expense of pedestrians."

Some pedestrians also have trouble finding the silver button to get a walk signal, Branyan said; others don't understand that a flashing red hand permits them to finish crossing.

"Even the highway design books say that if the pedestrian has to wait more than 30 seconds, they're likely to engage in risky behavior," Branyan said.

But to Janet Pogar, driver and pedestrian inconvenience seems a small price to pay.

Three years ago, Pogar's son, Steven, a Glen Burnie High senior, died from injuries sustained while crossing Ritchie Highway at the school. As president of the school's Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, Pogar had pushed for a crossing guard and rumble strips at the intersection near the school long before her son's death. Even though the intersection now has both safety features, Pogar said she still sees teen-agers dart across the street.

"My kids will not walk in Glen Burnie or on Ritchie Highway. They won't even walk to the mailbox," said Pogar, who lives in Glen Burnie with her five children.

Pogar said Ritchie Highway's inhospitable walking environment imperils county planners' visions to recapture the Main Street feel that characterized Glen Burnie in the first half of the century.

On the highway's banks sits a town center, complete with an ice-skating rink, a walking path and several Asian restaurants. Every year, the Glen Burnie Improvement Association holds a carnival in a grassy spot next to the highway.

"They want to build this cute little Mayberry community," Pogar said, "but then people are going to get hit going to it."

Anne Arundel County police can't do much to redefine a highway so famous for its many car dealerships that locals once called the area "Chrome City." But officers, armed with $20,000 in grant money from Branyan's office, are trying to warn drivers to pay attention to pedestrians.

Beginning this month, county police will conduct pedestrian "stings" on Ritchie Highway - sending decoy plainclothes officers into the crosswalk to ticket drivers who don't slow down, a strategy local police departments use in known pedestrian trouble spots.

Though the department usually funnels its grant money to Annapolis for pedestrian stings in the capital, Anne Arundel County police Lt. Keith Williams said the high number of pedestrian accidents warranted the Ritchie Highway stings.

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