The yellow Ford Fiesta lurched around obstacles in a series of hair-raising, near-miss maneuvers as it raced to get through the Layhill Road intersection before the light turned red: a stalled Ford Taurus, a slow-moving panel truck, a minivan carrying children that slowed for the McDonald's. Continuing on his westbound course, from Bonifant Road to Bel Pre Road, the driver seemed oblivious to honks of the angry drivers in his wake.
It was a typical day, last week, at what a recent analysis of traffic statistics by American Automobile Association Mid-Atlantic has determined is the most dangerous intersection in Maryland's Washington suburbs.
"Every week I see an accident and whenever it happens, it's a bad one--not a fender bender," said Zahoor E. "John" Mahdi, manager of the Bel Pre Layhill Mobil, at the intersection of Bel Pre Road and Layhill Road (Route 182).
The private driver-advocacy group has been putting out the top 10 list for several years as a public service.
"We do it mostly . . . to alert motorists as to where the trouble spots are," said Mantill Williams, public and government relations specialist for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "And we hope, when we publicize it, that it puts some pressure on elected officials and transportation engineers to make some improvements."
Motorists' aggressive habits and the traffic generated by booming development share the blame for dangerous intersections, Williams said.
"Sure, there are some commonalities with these intersections--very often it's the lack of a turn lane so people who are turning try to stretch that yellow light out and get into trouble," Williams said. "But often it's also bad drivers, combined with congestion--roads handling more traffic than they were meant to bear."
AAA looked at 1997 accident and traffic-flow data that it obtained from officials in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia and calculated the accident rate. (Previous years' lists have been assembled based only on the number of accidents.)
But while Maryland officials say they share AAA's concern about highway safety and try to make improvements to state roads when needed, they don't think much of the group's list.
"We didn't see any intersections that mesh with the ones that we've identified as being as especially in need of improvement," said Suzanne Bond, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration.
Bond said the state looks at many more factors than AAA did when determining which roads need the most attention.
"We look at the severity of accidents, traffic volume, when the accidents occur--are they at night or when there is bad weather," Bond said. "If the accidents occur more frequently at night, we might want to address the lighting situation. If they occur in rainy weather, we might want to change road markings to make them more visible."
Bond also faulted AAA for using data from a single year. "If you just look at data for one year, it might have been a bad winter or a rainy summer," she said.
Still, Maryland motorists concurred with AAA on many of its choices and said the list has value.
"I've had personal experience with almost all of these spots, and they're all a nightmare," said Mark Andrews, a truck driver with 12 years of driving experience who reviewed the list while gassing up at the Bel Pre Layhill Mobil last week. "I hope this makes somebody do something about it."
In Maryland, the group looked at three counties--Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties, coming up with the worst intersections in that tri-county area.
1. Montgomery County: Bel Pre Road, Bonifant Road at Layhill Road (Md. Route 182).
2. Prince George's County: northbound U.S. Route 1 at Bowie Road.
3. Prince George's County: St. Barnabas Road (Md. Route 414) at 28th Avenue and the ramps to and from Branch Avenue (Md. Route 5).
4. Prince George's County: Landover Road (Md. Route 202) at Lottsford Road.
5. Montgomery County: Muncaster Mill Road (Md. Route 115) at Shady Grove Road/Airpark Road.
6. Montgomery County: Woodfield Road (Md. Route 124) at Flower Hill Way.
7. Montgomery County: Viers Mill Road (Md. Route 586) at Grandview Avenue (the entrance to Wheaton Plaza).
8. Prince George's County: U.S. 301 (Robert Crain Highway) at South Osborne Road.
9. Prince George's County: Riggs Road (Md. Route 212) at East West Highway (Md. Route 410).
10. Montgomery County: Frederick Road (Md. Route 355) at Redland Way.
In Prince George's County, one spot on the list--Landover Road and Lottsford Road, where a fatal accident occurred during the study period--set off alarm bells for community activist Carmen Anderson.
"That's right near where the new stadium is and Six Flags and they've been doing all kinds of road reconstruction and widening--and ye gods, still it's terrible," said Anderson, a past president and member of the board of the Prince George's County Civic Federation.
"It shows the more road building you do, it doesn't solve the problem--public transportation is what's going to get us out of this mess," Anderson said.
Another spot highlighted in the study, Robert Crain Highway (Md. Route 301) at South Osborne Road, has been a high priority for Maryland State Police, who have beefed up patrols and pushed traffic safety with brochures and public outreach. The State Highway Administration, working with the state police, has been making improvements to signals and lights in the 301 corridor.
AAA also compiled a top 10 list for each of the three counties. In Charles County, seven of the 10 most dangerous intersections involve U.S. Route 301, which serves both as a north-south artery and as Southern Maryland's leading commercial street.
The most hazardous Charles County intersection, according to the listing, is where Route 301 meets Maryland Route 5/Route 228, where 42 accidents occurred in 1997, according to AAA.
Route 301's high-risk intersections were concentrated in the Waldorf area and included those with Smallwood Drive, Acton Lane, Plaza Drive and Demarr Road.
The rankings conform to the experiences of those who respond to accidents on the road.
"I don't think that would come as a surprise to anybody," said Craig Renner, a spokesman for the Charles County Sheriff's Office. "As we see increasing amounts of traffic on 301, we see increasing numbers of accidents."
A committee appointed by Charles County's elected officials is deciding whether to endorse earlier calls for a bypass around Waldorf.
The report lists Charles County's second-worst crossroads as the intersection of Route 5 and Route 231 in Hughesville, where commuters headed to and from Washington and St. Mary's County squeeze through a narrow right of way.
With an eye to resolving congestion at that intersection, state officials have decided to build a bypass around the central part of Hughesville.
CAPTION: In Prince George's (This graphic was not available)