WHEN I asked for your nominations for Howard County's hit parade (worst places to drive), I never expected this: repeated complaints about a popular shopping center.
But, oddly enough, it is not The Mall in Columbia, a location I've long considered to be one of Columbia's worst places to drive or park.
The winner of the dubious honor is Ellicott City's Long Gate Shopping Center, nestled uncomfortably amid Route 103, Route 100 and U.S. 29.
Lenore Turner was one of those who nominated the poorly designed intersection at Long Gate Shopping Center leading to Route 103. She noted that other shopping centers that stop traffic in a similar fashion, such as The Mall in Columbia, have some of these problems too. But she insisted that Long Gate is the worst of them. Why? Because of the speed bumps, the width of the intersection just inside the shopping center and the short exit road.
"This intersection and others like it go against the usual traffic conventions and drivers' subconscious expectations [well, at least mine]," she said, adding that usually in a three-way intersection, the traffic traveling across the bar of the "T" has the right of way, and traffic moving down stops. "When I am exiting from Long Gate, the proportions of the intersection make it difficult to see and gauge the time to turn into the short exit road. The speed bumps exacerbate the problem, so traffic piles up, people turn when they don't have the right of way and all is a mess."
It is indeed.
But Mike Hurd also faulted the signage. He noted that signs say "incoming traffic has right of way," but wondered about the message's vagueness. "Does that necessarily mean `incoming into the shopping center'?" he asked.
Ms. Turner also takes issue with the signs. "The signs at these intersections are meant to help drivers with that problem, but they use poor English that confounded me the first time I encountered them and now simply annoys me," she said. "The `incoming' wording works just fine if I am on my way out because the traffic I am facing is indeed coming in. But if I am on my way to go in, it's baffling. How can there be someone coming toward me to go in, when I'm going in? Rather than create two different signs for the two directions of traffic, why not change the sign to read `inbound'?" she suggested.
Just outside this troublesome shopping center lurk more problems - Route 103 and U.S. 29. But Norma Walker, an optimist, also believed the key is in the signage. "I'd like you to address an unsafe road condition that I think could be improved by better signage at minimum expense - the [Route 103]/U.S. 29 intersection when headed northeast on Route 103," she said.
Route 103 has two lanes in each direction in front of Long Gate Shopping Center. Just before the U.S. 29 overpass and the exit to U.S. 29 north, there is a traffic-light-controlled intersection with Old Columbia Pike on one side and a fire station on the other. A sign before the light states that the right lane must turn at U.S. 29.
"That sign, plus the short solid white line between the lanes at the light, indicates [at least to me] that vehicles in the left lane are to go straight ahead across U.S. 29," she said. Going straight - given that the right lane must exit into the entrance ramp to U.S. 29 north - is the only option.
"The problem arises when vehicles in the left lane assume that the right lane is a turn lane for Old Columbia Pike and they have the option of getting onto U.S. 29 going north from the lane they're in," Ms. Walker said.
She recalled that she has had two terrifyingly close calls at that intersection when getting on U.S. 29 from the right lane. "One near-miss was with a dump truck. That Law of Tonnage says my Focus loses big time," she said.
But the shopping center only exacerbates the problems on that stretch.
"The situation is complicated by the volume of traffic leaving the Long Gate Shopping Center and the challenge of getting into the proper lane in a relatively short distance," she said. "People unfamiliar with the area may not realize there is need to get into the right lane and the present sign is not easy to see from the left lane when traffic is heavy."
Her solution is clearly visible arrows painted in the lanes, a longer solid white line dividing lanes, and overhead arrow signs indicating proper lane use.
Gee. I can't wait for the Christmas shopping season.
What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at firstname.lastname@example.org, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 30 Corporate Center, 10440 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 820, Columbia, 21044. Please include your full name and contact information or your comments will not be published or receive a response.