David Alpert is president and founder of Greater Greater Washington.
Cities and counties across the nation have been pledging to a concept called “Vision Zero,” the idea that not a single person ought to die in crashes on our roadways. Locally, the District, Alexandria and Montgomery County each have Vision Zero programs. These programs are in the early stages, but D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently announced a plan to fix 36 intersections, including ones with dangerous “double turn” lanes.
Meanwhile, many state transportation departments, including Maryland’s, continue to pay lip service to making roads safe. A December analysis by the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service brought the failings of the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) into sharp focus.
Sean Emerson, a member of the Action Committee for Transit and a legislative aide to state Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), said the SHA is unwilling to make safety changes if they would delay drivers by even 10 to 15 seconds. SHA spokesman Charlie Gischlar blamed distracted drivers or pedestrians. He told Capital News Service reporters Lindsay Huth, Angela Roberts and Jake Gluck, “We say that the majority of pedestrian crashes are, sadly, on the part of highway user (driver or pedestrian) behavior.”
That statement should shock all of us. The SHA’s mission statement begins: “Provide a safe, well-maintained, reliable highway system.” Safety is the first of the three goals listed. Yet when asked why the state’s highway system leads to people dying, the agency spokesman in effect, is saying, “it’s the dead people’s fault, not ours.”
There are two major problems with this. First, other experts seem to disagree. Montgomery County data analyst Wade Holland told the CNS reporters that he doesn’t see an “epidemic of pedestrians being struck due to cellphone use” in the county’s data. And Gischlar told them he wasn’t basing his victim-blaming on data, just anecdotal experience. That’s a terrible and often quite misleading way to make decisions.
Second, we shouldn’t design systems in which common — but perhaps unsafe — behaviors lead to death. We could simply not insulate the electric cords to our lamps, say. If you were to touch it and get electrocuted, well, we could just say “the majority of shock injuries are, sadly, on the part of lamp user (adult or child) behavior.”
We could have a world in which 40,000 Americans die in lamp “accidents” a year, as that number did in motor-vehicle crashes in 2016. The actual number of annual fatal electrocutions involving all consumer electrical appliances? About 60. Thanks, wire insulation, electrical building codes and other safety systems! Good thing the SHA isn’t in charge there!
Traffic engineering may be the only technical profession where a large number of practitioners still shrug at deaths that happen on their watch. By comparison, airplane crashes are scrutinized in great detail, and airlines are often required to make changes to procedures or aircraft. That’s why there hasn’t been a single death on a commercial passenger flight in the United States since 2013 and none on a flight operated by a U.S. airline since 2009. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has rightly endured intense federal and local scrutiny for the death of Carol Glover on a smoke-filled train in 2015. We expect better. Why not for our roads?
Even when the SHA does take action, it makes a place harder to walk. Where the state has a high-speed highway-like road next to places people shop, eat, live and walk, it too often responds to crashes by trying to keep the people away so the cars can go faster.
In College Park, the SHA put a fence in the median of Route 1 to stop people from crossing. A nearly 2-mile-long fence is planned for Coastal Highway in Ocean City. People drive too fast, and others try to walk across the road to get to the beach. The SHA’s solution: stop people from crossing the road, even though the distance between intersections with traffic lights can be as much as a half a mile.
As Dan Malouff put it on Twitter, “This is not how you make streets safe for pedestrians. This is how you tell pedestrians they should drive.” And ironically, making people drive can make roads less safe, since more cars can mean more crashes.
Back in our region, one of the biggest problem with SHA roads, and fences, is that bus stops are usually right on major state highways, often with little or no space for the bus to stop. They often are not even at the intersection. For instance, Ben Ross observed that it took more than eight minutes to legally cross the street when he got off at the bus stop at Route 355 and Shady Grove Road in Montgomery County. People getting off the bus have to choose between long walks and interminable waits to cross or trying their luck at a game of Frogger.
The SHA doesn’t need to stay in the Stone Age, but it should admit it has a speeding problem. There’s no sign of that so far: When denying a public records request for information about audits it had conducted at crash sites, its lawyers said disclosure was “contrary to the public interest” because “it could be used to attempt to discover MDOT SHA’s thought process regarding decisions affecting highway safety.” The horror.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the state legislature should demand better. The only reasonable number of deaths on Maryland state roads is zero.