Baltimore City, county lag in curbing deadly accidents

Making the streets safe for pedestrians

December 25, 2007|By Danielle Ulman | Danielle Ulman,Capital News Service

LANGLEY PARK -- Tara Harden made it halfway across University Boulevard on a recent afternoon, stepped off the median into the crosswalk and immediately jumped back when several cars barreled by her.

When the cars passed, Harden hesitantly made her way to the other side of the street, looking slightly defeated.

Harden, in her 50s, said she rarely sees drivers yield to pedestrians when she crosses the particularly dangerous stretch of University near New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County, where the crosswalk is not at an intersection.

Montgomery is one of four jurisdictions in Maryland that combined to make up 70 percent of the 96 statewide pedestrian fatalities last year, according to a Capital News Service analysis, but it's the only county with a comprehensive plan to combat the problem.

Walkers and drivers have had a troubled relationship in Montgomery, where 18 pedestrians died in crashes last year, and 16 more have died so far this year. The deaths prompted an initiative to build several miles of sidewalks, improve pedestrian signals and target jaywalkers and careless drivers over the next six years.

But little is being done in Baltimore and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City, which combined saw 49 pedestrian fatalities in 2006.

Maryland law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, said Chuck Gischlar, a State Highway Administration spokesman.

"It might be good to put up signals at crosswalks," Harden said. "That doesn't mean the cars are going to stop, of course."

Montgomery County officials hope the right amount of education, engineering and enforcement will make streets safer for walkers.

The initiative is an attempt to make a cohesive plan out of existing efforts, said Sonya Healy, chief of staff for Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, who helped put together the plan.

"What it's basically going to do is take a systematic, comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety," Healy said. "We're going to take a snapshot of where we are today and see what needs to be done."

The plan, announced Dec. 5, builds on the recommendations of Montgomery's 2002 blue ribbon panel on pedestrian safety. It will evaluate high-incident areas for engineering and other improvements, said Tom Pogue, a county transportation spokesman.

"We feel like if we focus on a handful of areas each year, then that gives us a means to evaluate the difference that we might be making," Pogue said. "So they'll be like little test tubes."

Montgomery will work with state agencies on state-maintained roads within the county. Many pedestrian accidents occur on state routes such as University Boulevard, Connecticut Avenue and Georgia Avenue.

In Prince George's, there is less willingness to work on state roads, where Susan Hubbard of the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation said most fatalities happened in 2006.

"We only do county-maintained roads," Hubbard said. "The state is responsible for all things pedestrian as well as driver safety on state roads."

Hubbard said she was surprised to hear that a forthcoming report from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which tracks development and transportation, will rate Prince George's the worst-performing district on pedestrian safety in the Metropolitan Washington region.

But Cheryl Cort, the coalition's policy director, said "Prince George's actually has a terrible problem with pedestrian safety, and we're seeing very little to stop it."

"The state shares a lot of the blame in the dangers that pedestrians face because they're getting killed on state roads," Cort said. There are best practices that all jurisdictions should be employing, including hiring bicycle and pedestrian planners. Prince George's isn't instituting these enough, she said.

The state is working on fixing problem areas, including the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, Gischlar said.

"In Langley Park, where Prince George's and Montgomery meet, we're putting up a wrought-iron fence in the median to deter people from crossing mid-block," he said.

But some experts cautioned against barriers meant to guide pedestrians.

"What often happens is, in our attempts to make areas safe for pedestrians, we often get misguided in that we discourage them from walking at all," said Kelly Clifton, a researcher with the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Esther Eze, a Montgomery resident, stood during a recent afternoon, waiting in the rain for the bus on University Boulevard and watching people run across the street.

"If people follow the lines, then it should be safe, but people don't have the patience and they keep crossing when cars are still coming," she said. "People are not paying attention to this crosswalk."

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