The Danger Zone

Crews respond to a four-vehicle wreck on the Beltway in College Park. "I've heard from police that [Prince George's County is] the fastest part of the Beltway," said Lon Anderson of AAA-Mid Atlantic. (By Mark Brady -- Prince George's County Fire/ems Department)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

The stretch of Interstate 495 that rolls through Prince George's County makes up less than a third of the Capital Beltway, but in the past three years it has accounted for 70 percent of its traffic fatalities.

Forty-two people died in crashes on the portion of the Beltway between the Virginia border and the interchange where Interstate 95 splits off toward Baltimore, while 18 were killed on the rest of the roadway, according to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration statistics for 2006 to 2008.

There is no ready explanation for the disparity, although long-term construction projects are a likely factor. It also is the quadrant that carries I-95, daily tossing thousands of drivers who are just passing through the region into the insanity of one of the country's most congested roadways.

But a review of the circumstances of all 52 fatal crashes during those three years provides no inkling as to why so many of them happened in Prince George's. It's not the most heavily traveled portion of the Beltway, carrying 10,000 to 30,000 fewer vehicles a day than some segments of the road in Montgomery County, where six people died during that three-year period.

Part of the answer might lie in the fact that although traffic congestion might lead to more fender benders, the slower speeds at which cars collide in heavy traffic means fewer fatalities.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, has been observing Beltway traffic for decades and said the lopsided number of fatalities in Prince George's isn't surprising.

"I've heard from police that it's the fastest part of the Beltway," Anderson said. "On the rest of the Beltway, 60 or 65 [mph] is pretty common, but when you get over there, you can be going 70 and people pass you like you're standing still."

The speed limit on the Beltway is 55.

Anderson said the road contours in Prince George's lend themselves to higher speeds.

"It's wide and flat, and you have fairly long sightlines," he said. "Once you get past I-95 [and into Montgomery], the Beltway curves and twists a lot more, so people have to slow down."

In all, Beltway crashes claimed 60 lives during those three years. Speed or alcohol, or both, was a factor in at least 20 of the deaths. About half involved just one car, usually running off the road. Motorcycle crashes accounted for seven fatalities, often involving rear-end collisions. Twelve were collisions with trucks.

A dozen of the deaths were pedestrians who had gotten out of their vehicles after a breakdown or other emergency.

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