Redo for dreaded Towson circle


Robert McGrain of Towson likes most roundabouts - but not the dreaded one in downtown Towson, where four roads come together in a two-lane mishmash.

"The Towson roundabout is unique. If you haven't experienced it, you don't know what you're missing. It probably rates as an 'engineering' success because it moves traffic more efficiently than the old intersection ever did. However, I think that the patrons at Souris' bar [which occupies the southwest end of the roundabout] still place crash bets at happy hour," he wrote.

McGrain is correct. Souris co-owner Kathy Farrell and manager Patty Invernizzi told me last week that their customers frequently ask for curbside seating so they can enjoy the traffic chaos. "An accident is a cause for a round of shots," Invernizzi said.

The State Highway Administration is planning changes next month that it hopes will promote a little more sobriety at Souris.

No, it isn't about to tear out the vintage 1998 roundabout and go back to what was arguably one of the most dangerous and dysfunctional intersections in Maryland. But the agency will make some important changes in an effort to make it simpler, more pedestrian-friendly and less entertaining for barflies.

Unlike McGrain, some Maryland motorists detest the very idea of roundabouts - an innovation that didn't take root in the state until 1993, when state highway officials built their first in Lisbon, in western Howard County.

But love them or hate them, the record is clear: They save lives, because they virtually eliminate T-bone and head-on collisions at intersections. A clueless driver who can't figure out the cardinal rule governing roundabouts - yield to traffic in the circle - might sideswipe or rear-end you, but is unlikely to kill you. The SHA has not recorded a single fatality at any intersection it has converted to a roundabout.

The Towson roundabout has been an outlier, however. There's the sheer number of entrance and exit points as York, Joppa and Dulaney Valley roads meet up with Allegheny Avenue. Then there's the shape. It's less a roundabout than an oval-about, and a visit shows that many drivers come slingshotting out of the rounded ends and treat the flat sides as launching pads to rocket up East Joppa Road or out Allegheny Avenue.

Erin S. Kuhn, the SHA's assistant district engineer, said the agency is hoping to take some of the guesswork out of navigating the circle by narrowing it to one lane at three key points - in effect reducing the driver's decision-making burden.

At the point where traffic in the circle exits onto East Joppa Road, the engineers will pinch the travel lanes down to one to slow traffic and give pedestrians an easier crossing. "Flex posts" will narrow the roadway on the southern end to help cut down on weaving.

Kuhn said SHA's plan is to shut down the roundabout the nights of June 16-18 to install the new lane posts and repaint the lane markings. No concrete-pouring is involved.

Let's hope the changes work and that drivers enjoy a safer, saner roundabout. If not, at least we know where to grab a pint and enjoy the action.

Legislative victory

Congratulations to my old friends at ABATE of Maryland on helping to secure the passage of legislation increasing the penalties for failure to yield the right of way in collisions that kill or seriously injure people. After a five-year struggle, the measure is now law.

The legislation, enacted during the recent General Assembly session, raises the fines in such cases from a paltry $70 to as much as $1,000 and provides for the loss of driving privileges for up to 180 days.

The group also lobbied successfully for legislation to allow auxiliary lighting on motorcycles to increase their visibility.

For motorcycle riders, frequently the victims in crashes where less-than-attentive drivers of larger vehicles fail to see them, these bills could be the most important safety legislation since the state adopted its mandatory helmet law.

ABATE, of course, hates that law and annually attempts to win its repeal. Mercifully, its effort died again in committee this year. But apart from that one cockamamie position, the ABATE folks do a good job of advocacy. It's good to see them score wins on their better ideas.

By the way, Steven P. Strohmier of ABATE's Baltimore chapter wrote to request a mention of Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month. Normally, this column avoids National Whatever Months, but Strohmier makes a good case that May is a good time to remind readers of the vulnerability of folks on two-wheel vehicles.

"This is the time when people start getting out on their motorcycles more often since the weather improves and makes for more comfortable riding for the average motorcyclist. It is the goal of this designation and awareness campaign to hopefully make drivers of other motor vehicles more alert for the increasing numbers of motorcyclists and to be alert for their presence," Strohmier writes.

He's right. Those bikers may look tough, but their flesh and blood are no match for a passenger car or SUV. One of the most common scenarios for a motorcycle fatality occurs when an inattentive driver hangs a left turn across the path of an oncoming bike.

Motorists can guard against becoming involuntary agents of death by diligently scanning the road ahead, putting away the cell phones and turning down the music to increase the chances of hearing an approaching motorcycle.

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