Oscar Mauricio Gutiérrez Osorio was biking home on a Sunday afternoon this month when he was struck and killed by a car at a crosswalk.
The 31-year-old Silver Spring resident’s death was the second in less than seven months at the crosswalk. In late December 2015, 19-year-old Frank Towers was struck as he cycled home from work in the evening. Towers was riding a bike that he had received as a gift for Christmas, three days earlier.
That crosswalk, where a bike and pedestrian trail crosses six lanes of traffic at the bottom of two steep hills on Veirs Mill Road in Montgomery County, has an unfortunate reputation for being risky and accident-prone. Cars zoom by at 50 mph, and there is no traffic light. There are yellow lights that flash to warn oncoming motorists when pedestrians and cyclists push a button, but the lack of a red light means that drivers are not obligated to stop.
“Every time I drive past that [crosswalk], my stomach tightens because . . . it’s dangerous,” Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said. “I was shocked but at the same time almost ashamed that we had another fatality there.”
Three days after Osorio was killed, Riemer and the eight other members of the Montgomery County Council sent a letter asking for safety improvements at the intersection to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), the Maryland Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration.
The cycling community is also calling on the SHA to improve the safety of the crosswalk at the Veirs Mill Road and Turkey Branch Parkway intersection, which council members called “undeniably dangerous.”
The flashers “are insufficient to address the problem since they require motorists to slow down and exercise caution but not to stop,” the letter said. “Drivers continue to exceed the 40-mph speed limit even when the light signal is activated. At these speeds, a collision with a pedestrian or bicyclist is almost certainly fatal.”
The letter called for the state to explore adding a pedestrian-activated stop signal and making structural improvements “that may make this area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
The highway administration said it has installed additional flashers on both sides of the road, as well as in the median. The problem, said David Buck, an SHA spokesman, is that engineering solutions alone cannot prevent all fatalities. Enforcement and education are also needed — catching speeding drivers and encouraging cyclists and pedestrians to activate the flashers.
Unfortunately, Buck said, citing a crash report and Montgomery County police officials, the two cyclists in the deadly collisions did not push the button to activate the flashers.
“Not only do we want them to push the button to engage the flashers . . . we also want them to dismount the bike and walk across,” Buck said.
Riemer, the council member, said there is a need to “fundamentally change the dynamic” at the crosswalk. As he sees it, “the State Highway Administration is prioritizing long trips. They want to move cars quickly over long distances.” Instead, Riemer wants the needs of the local community prioritized — the first step being the installation of a stop signal.
But the SHA said that there are not enough pedestrians using the crossing to justify a pedestrian-activated stop signal.
There are so few pedestrians and bicyclists at the crosswalk during the week and at night, Buck said, that drivers probably would ignore a stop signal.
“We have to make sure . . . are we encouraging people to run red lights?” Buck said.
Riemer broached the idea of building a flyover or a pedestrian tunnel as a longer-term solution, but Buck cautioned that either alternative would be difficult to implement.
The bridge would need additional space on either end to allow for a gradual gradient, he said, but a stream traversing Veirs Mill Road poses problems. And a tunnel, he said, would be “very rare” and similarly difficult to build.
All these factors need to be taken into account before changes are implemented at the crosswalk, Buck said, because engineers “need to look at the facts and the study [of the crash] and not the emotion and aftereffects of a tragic crash.”
Gregory Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, sent an email to the SHA the day after the crash asking that the agency “install a HAWK [high intensity activated crosswalk] signal, full traffic light or other engineering solution which requires drivers to stop for trail users.”
A HAWK signal, also known as a pedestrian hybrid beacon, is a warning device that a pedestrian or bicyclist can activate by pushing a button. The beacon, located on the roadside or on mast arms above a crossing, first flashes yellow to warn drivers, then switches to a steady red light, at which point pedestrians and cyclists can cross while vehicle traffic comes to a stop.
The pedestrian hybrid beacon has a track record for significantly reducing pedestrian crashes. According to a 2010 Federal Highway Administration study, they reduced pedestrian crashes by 69 percent and total crashes by 29 percent.
The catch: Maryland law does not permit the use of the pedestrian hybrid beacon.
Cedric Ward, director of traffic and safety at the SHA, said that “concerns from a safety standpoint” dissuaded Maryland officials from approving the use of the beacon. Because the beacon changes to a flashing red light at the end of a pedestrian’s crossing, there were fears that a pedestrian would get halfway out through the crosswalk only to have a vehicle proceed when the red light begins to flash, Ward said.
“There would have to be a change in . . . the law for a HAWK to be installed,” Buck said.
What will remain unchanged is the geographical fact that the crosswalk is at the bottom of two hills, and cars traveling in both directions pick up speed by the time they get to the intersection.
For all the additional signs and flashing lights, Buck said, the most important thing is for everyone to play their part. “It’s a combination of everybody . . . doing the right thing 100 percent of the time,” he said.
Originally from the southwestern Cauca region of Colombia, Osorio came to the United States “to look for opportunities,” reported W Radio, a Colombian radio network. His body was flown home to Colombia for burial, the station reported.
Pedestrian deaths in Montgomery County increased in 2015, with 12 pedestrians and three cyclists reported killed last year, compared with nine and one, respectively, in 2014. In January, the county introduced a Vision Zero action plan, an initiative that combines legal changes, police enforcement, public education and data-driven engineering to eliminate traffic-related deaths. By October, the county will set a deadline to reach this goal.