Bethesda civic, business and government officials have joined forces to promote greater pedestrian safety, an issue they believe is becoming increasingly critical as the county's downtown neighborhoods continue to attract more cars and more people.
Just ask Katherine Stokes, a lifelong Montgomery County resident, who is 72 and needs to use a walker to get around. It's hard enough just making it across the street before the light changes, she said, but oftentimes, that's made even tougher by cars that make turns without stopping, right in front of her.
"With all the changes and construction, I don't remember it ever being this bad before," she said.
The Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Pedestrian Coalition was formed during the summer, with the objective of reducing the number of pedestrian accidents by concentrating on what organizers call "the three E's"--education, enforcement and engineering.
So far, the most visible efforts have focused on education and enforcement. Banners have gone up in downtown Bethesda. Fliers, bookmarks and palm cards have been printed and distributed to try to get people--both drivers and pedestrians--to be more careful. In addition, the Montgomery police department has beefed up traffic enforcement at several key intersections in downtown Bethesda and Friendship Heights to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.
County traffic engineers also are looking for ways to make any potentially dangerous crossings safer with such measures as improved signage, adjusted signal times or changes to the curbs.
Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery), a longtime traffic safety advocate who lives in downtown Bethesda, has been the leading force behind the coalition. Bronrott said concerns about the hazards of walking and driving in the area were among the top issues voiced by voters in District 16 when he was campaigning for the state legislature last year.
"It seemed as if everybody I would meet was talking about these issues," Bronrott said. The issue of pedestrian safety, he added, is becoming more important in Montgomery County as planners seek to concentrate growth in "smart growth" corridors that will have a higher concentration of pedestrians than the county's traditional suburban neighborhoods. "My bottom-line goal is that I'd like to see us build more walkable communities."
In 1998, nine pedestrians in Montgomery County were killed in traffic accidents. As of last week, police said, nine pedestrians have been killed so far this year.
The police department has posted additional officers at five intersections in Bethesda and Friendship Heights, enforcing such violations as illegal turns and red light running. "It's an issue that we've been concerned about," said Sgt. Roy Russell, of the Bethesda district, who is one of the department's representatives on the Pedestrian Safety Coalition. "We've got a lot of buildings going up here, a lot of construction, and we've also had a couple of fatalities."
During the summer, Russell said, there were 11 accidents involving pedestrians reported in the district, compared with 16 in 1998 and 15 in 1997. Though the goal is to take those numbers even farther down, he said: "I think we accomplished something this summer. I really do." The department, he said, will continue to pay special attention to these intersections.
Coalition members believe their primary mission is to increase awareness of the problem. "We're all in such a hurry. Everybody's rushing to get somewhere as fast as they can. People often don't stop to think about what they're doing," said Gail Nachman, the director of the county's Bethesda Regional Services Center. "I really think we need to refocus people's attention--and not just drivers, but pedestrians, too. We have to drum it into people's heads."
Scott Wainwright, the chief of the county's Division of Traffic and Parking Services, said he is looking into what kinds of improvements can be made at some of the key intersections. Yet, he too, believes that the educational aspect of the "three E's" will be the most effective tool.
"If you think about the environment that's out there today, with aggressive driving, with pedestrians not paying attention to signals or crossing in the middle of the street, what we really need to do is heighten people's awareness of the dangers and the risks that they're taking," Wainwright said.