Picture a crosswalk with six lanes of traffic flashing toward it at 50 miles an hour and you will begin to see where Frank Towers was struck on his Christmas bike as he pedaled home from work Monday.
It’s a straightaway in either direction, the cars move fast, it was dark, and so were his bike and clothing. There’s no intersection, no traffic light. If he pushed a button that emits a little beep, yellow lights would have flashed at drivers about 100 yards away, but very few of them abide by the law and stop at the crosswalk.
Three days after Christmas, on the bike he got as a gift, Towers died at age 19.
The crosswalk — where a bike and pedestrian trail crosses Veirs Mill Road in Montgomery County, about a half-mile northwest of Randolph Road — is considered so risky that Tuesday a county police officer sent a report to the state that more or less said, “I told you so.”
Deaths of people on foot and on bicycles are up this year in Montgomery and across the country. In Montgomery, 12 pedestrians were reported killed in 2015 and three cyclists, up from nine and one in 2014. Two of the people killed in 2015 were crossing Veirs Mill less than a mile from the place where Towers died.
Overall traffic deaths in the United States have been decreasing as more cars carry high-tech safety equipment that can keep them out of trouble and occupants inside the vehicles when collisions cannot be avoided. But with almost a million more people walking and cycling than in 2005, the number of those killed and injured has remained about the same.
Pedestrian deaths in the past 10 years have risen from less than 11 percent of all traffic fatalities to 14.5 percent. Cyclist deaths increased from 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent.
One reason, cited in a Government Accountability Office report in November, is that until recently, U.S. roads were designed for cars. Drinking and distraction by all parties — drivers, walkers and cyclists — has not helped matters, either.
But the crosswalk on Veirs Mill Road, near Turkey Run Parkway, is a risky proposition even when none of those factors are in play.
“It’s just amazing to me how there is no respect for people’s rights in the crosswalk,” said Douglas B. Farquhar, a lawyer who bikes to work from his home near Olney. “I would say maybe one out of 10 cars stops.”
Capt. Thomas Didone, who heads the county police department’s traffic division, is blunt about it.
“People trying to cross are universally ignored by drivers,” he said. “We have done many, many crosswalk stings at that location, and every time we go we write as many tickets as we can handle.”
Veirs Mill is a Maryland roadway, and the State Highway Administration installed the crosswalk in the hope it would provide some protection to the many people who were crossing there anyway. A trail used by hikers and cyclists bisects the road, following a ravine that causes Veirs Mill to run downhill toward it from each direction.
There is a median strip that offers a haven between triple lanes of traffic that routinely tops the 45-mph posted speed limit. And the crosswalk itself is offset to stop death-defying cyclists from trying to rocket straight across.
Maryland law is unequivocal: Drivers are required to stop for people in a crosswalk.
“There are times when I’m screaming at people that it’s a crosswalk and they’re supposed to stop, and they give me the finger,” Farquhar said.
But the danger at Veirs Mill — and it got Towers killed Monday — is that some drivers do stop, and often others swerve around them.
Towers was pedaling home from work at Dynamite Gymnastics about 7:30 p.m. He made it safely across the first three eastbound lanes to the median strip. Then a driver in the right westbound lane saw him and stopped, a car in the middle lane slowed to stop and Tower rode into the crosswalk.
A Toyota 4Runner going “full speed” in the left lane hit him broadside, Didone said.
When the full crash investigation is complete, Didone will deliver it to the state’s attorney’s office for a decision on whether the driver should be charged. Didone did not disguise his exasperation with the crash.
“This driver lived on Selfridge [Road], which was like two blocks away, so it isn’t like some guy from Topeka, Kansas, was driving through there,” he said.
But while a decision on whether the driver should be charged is pending, Didone sent a report on the incident to the State Highway Administration (SHA) on Tuesday.
“I hate to say that someone has to die for them to wake up, but immediately I sent them a report and essentially said: ‘Told you so. What are you going to do about it?’ ” he said.
Lora Rakowski of the SHA responded to a reporter’s inquiry Wednesday, acknowledging that county police had contacted her agency about the fatal crash.
“SHA has an active project underway to add additional flashers at this location,” she said. “This project was initiated to address the occurrence of rear-end crashes along westbound [Veirs Mill Road] at this location.”
Rakowski said the state planned by August to install overhead flashing lights at the crosswalk and to upgrade overhead lighting, as well.
A frustrated Didone had advice for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.
“Right of way is not an absolute,” he said. “Many European countries don’t have this problem because they essentially give way. We Americans feel entitled. We have right of way, we’re not yielding. So you may be right, but you could be dead right.”
And, if people walking or cycling want to be seen, particularly at night, they should wear something that’s brightly colored and reflective.
“I’m sure, if I spoke to this driver, the first thing he’s going to say is, ‘I didn’t see him,’ and that may be very true,” said Didone, who said Towers was wearing dark clothing. “Pedestrians and drivers both have the obligation to see each other, but we’ve also got to help each other out.”