Local and state officials gave the Montgomery County Council an update on traffic safety planning on Tuesday. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Montgomery County Council

Local and state officials had few immediate solutions on Tuesday as they grappled with three pedestrian fatalities in fewer than 30 days. 

County Council members emphasized they had scheduled the day’s traffic safety briefing earlier than anticipated to address the recent deaths.

But as they questioned transportation officials on the county’s Vision Zero plan — an effort to significantly reduce or even eliminate traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2030 — they acknowledged the difficulty of addressing growing calls for safety improvements in a county designed and built around vehicle traffic.

“The reality is that Montgomery County was designed as a bedroom community that has grown considerably,” Council Member Nancy Navarro said during the briefing with local transportation officials and the Maryland State Highway Administration.

“My frustration is that no matter how many [capital improvement programs] we look at, we’re trying to address all of this at once while knowing we don’t have enough funding to do it all together,” she added later in the briefing. 

It was a theme that pervaded the discussion with local planning and transportation officials and the Maryland State Highway Administration. The latter agency operates both Georgia Avenue and Rockville Pike — the sites of the first three pedestrian fatalities in 2020 — and many of the major arterial roads in Montgomery County.

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SHA officials have launched pedestrian fatality reviews of all three incidents, a standard procedure for deaths on state-run roadways, according to David Abrams, the agency’s deputy director for media relations.

The analysis examines road conditions, crash history, lane markings, signage, and lighting, among other factors, Abrams wrote in an email on Tuesday. But at the briefing, there was little mention of how — and when — potential improvements would be added to the roadways. 

Abrams referred a Bethesda Beat reporter to an online map of planned projects on the SHA website, which include intersection improvements and interchange construction along Md. 355 north of Gaithersburg. At the briefing, Acting SHA Director Tim Smith cited some of the agency’s recently completed efforts in the county, including a new traffic signal on Georgia Avenue and May Street in Silver Spring.

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But there are no immediate plans for improvements on Rockville Pike or Georgia Avenue close to where the crashes occurred. There are also no clear indicators that any of the fatalities were related to roadway conditions or driver behavior. 

During Tuesday’s briefing, Montgomery County Police Capt. Tom Didone said the department’s initial crash reports did not identify any “contributing behavior” by motorists, such as distracted driving.

Nor were there noteworthy “environmental factors,” he said, such as weather conditions or inadequate lighting. The only commonalities were that all three fatalities occurred at night on major state roadways, after the evening rush hour.

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The absence of contributing factors, such as a broken pedestrian signal or malfunctioning street lamps, makes it more difficult for the county and state to make quick fixes at crash sites, said Wade Holland, the county’s newly appointed Vision Zero coordinator.

It’s why the county’s Planning Department is requesting money for predictive safety analysis, which experts say can identify future crash sites — and recommend systematic changes for improving traffic safety.

“That’s really the type of situation where it comes into play,” Holland said after the briefing. “It’s asking, ‘What factors can we identify to address the cause of these crashes and how can we apply the changes across the county in the most cost-effective way?’”

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Like many county and state initiatives, it’s expected to take time. If the council approves funding for the program, the initial analysis would likely take a year to complete.

And while transit advocates are calling for lane reductions and comprehensive sidewalk improvements, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation is still finalizing a survey of local sidewalk conditions. The department plans to begin the design phase for high-priority areas this year.

Some of the state’s main initiatives are also works in progress. Smith told Council Member Tom Hucker that the agency tackles lane reductions incrementally, reconsidering roadway design when the routes become eligible for resurfacing.

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And while SHA has touted its plans for “context-driven access” — new guidelines that call for redesigning and constructing state roads based on density and usage — the agency still doesn’t have a deadline for implementing them.

It’s a particular concern in Montgomery County, where high-profile pedestrian fatalities dominated headlines in 2019 and the first month of 2020. While the county met its two-year Vision Zero targets for reducing fatal vehicle and bicycle crashes, Holland told the council it was far from meeting its goals for reducing fatal pedestrian crashes. 

But he also said that the rate of pedestrian deaths was relatively stable in recent years, even with a 15% increase in the county’s population and rise in the number of vehicular miles traveled. There was one fewer fatality in 2019 than in 2018.

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“But of course, it’s not ‘Vision Hold Steady,’” Holland said at the briefing. “It’s Vision Zero. So, while we’re not seeing the same increase as we’re seeing nationwide, we know we can do better.”