The director of Montgomery County police department’s traffic division warned pedestrians and bicyclists to walk and ride carefully at intersections after a recent surge in vehicle collisions involving walkers and cyclists.
Citing Maryland law during a press conference at a Capital Crescent Trail crossing in Bethesda Thursday afternoon, Capt. Tom Didone said pedestrians and bicyclists must take their safety into their own hands to avoid being struck by a vehicle.
“The purpose of today is to let pedestrians know they don’t always have the right of way,” Didone said.
Didone was joined by Capt. Rick Pelicano, a spokesman for the county’s park police department, and Jeff Dunckel, the pedestrian safety coordinator for Montgomery County. The press event took place at the trail crossing at Little Falls Parkway where 81-year-old retired professor Ned Gaylin of Chevy Chase was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing the road on his three-wheeled recumbent bicycle Monday.
Didone, citing “basic physics,” said vehicles traveling at the posted speed limit of 35 mph toward the crossing require a total of 133 feet to stop and that Maryland law states pedestrians “may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle” if it’s impossible for the vehicle to stop.
“Physics has also told us that every time a two-ton vehicle comes into contact with a bicyclist or pedestrian, that the bicyclist or pedestrian loses every time,” Didone said. “It’s the longest losing streak that I know of. They lose every time.”
Flowers near a yield sign at the Little Falls Parkway crossing Thursday. Photo by Andrew Metcalf
At the crossing there are stop signs posted facing the trail, while yield signs face traffic. On Thursday afternoon there were flowers placed next to the yield signs near where Gaylin had been struck. He was struck while he was in the crosswalk Monday morning and later died from his injuries at a hospital. Police are continuing their investigation to determine exactly what happened, a process they say takes about six to eight weeks to complete.
Pelicano said three other vehicle collisions involving cyclists have happened at the trail crossing this year—in those incidents the cyclists suffered minor injuries, with two refusing treatment. In all three, the drivers were found to be at fault, according to Pelicano. The trail was used by about 87,000 bicyclists and pedestrians in September alone, he said.
Since 2011 there have been 10 collisions including Monday’s fatal incident at the crossing. Drivers were found to be at fault by park police in the other nine, according to Pelicano. He said park police handle all collision investigations at the crossing unless a fatality occurs. At that point, county police take over.
Dunckel said cyclists and pedestrians should ride and walk “defensively” and urged cyclists to use “extra caution.” He encouraged them to wear light-colored clothing and reflective material.
Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat that jurisdictions should focus on redesigning dangerous crossings and intersections to prevent collisions—rather than putting responsibility on one group.
He said drivers, pedestrians and cyclists must all make quick decisions at crossings and on roadways. “I firmly believe those decisions shouldn’t be deadly. That means the system, primarily the design of our streets, trail crossings and bike lanes have to be designed to prevent mistakes from being fatal.”
Pelicano said the parks department, which has jurisdiction over Little Falls Parkway and the crossing, plans to meet with county officials soon to discuss possible changes to the crossing that could make it safer. That could include moving the crossing to the intersection of Little Falls Parkway and Arlington Road, where there’s a traffic signal, or adding stop signs on the roadway at the crossing to force vehicles to stop, according to Pelicano.
Mircei Rauta, a Bethesda resident who used the crossing Thursday morning while pushing his granddaughter in a stroller, said he walks the trail almost every day and often sees vehicles not yielding to pedestrians. He said about a month ago he saw a vehicle in one lane strike a cyclist after another car had stopped to allow the cyclist to cross. He said each time he crosses the road he puts his hand out to make a stop signal to ensure that vehicles see him and his granddaughter.
Chevy Chase resident Larry Bernard told Bethesda Beat Thursday he uses the crossing two to three times per week. He said cars stop “most of the time.”
“Once in a while people don’t or sometimes I’ll see people stop in one lane and cars in the other lane will continue through the intersection,” Bernard said. “Until they’re both stopped, I don’t feel safe.”
Bernard said stop signs for vehicles at the crossing would make it safer, but may also cause traffic issues.
The police press conference followed a string of serious collisions in the county over the past month.
On Sunday evening, a driver struck 54-year-old Pedro Mendoza, causing life-threatening injuries, as he was crossing Norbeck Road near the intersection of Baltimore Road in Rockville. Mendoza remains in critical condition at a local hospital, according to police.
On Oct. 6, the driver of a 2010 Chevrolet Suburban struck 26-year-old Elmer Enrique Santos Mila, causing life-threatening injuries, as he crossed Georgia Avenue near the intersection of Dawson Avenue in Wheaton. Police said Mila was not in a crosswalk when he was struck. He is expected to survive, police said.
On Oct. 4, 28-year-old Marchelle Edwards of Germantown was struck while she attempted to cross Rockville Pike near the Rockville Metro station. Police are investigating the incident to determine whether Edwards was in a crosswalk. She was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries and remains in critical condition, according to police.
In addition to focusing on the responsibilities of pedestrians and cyclists when using roads, Didone said all drivers must stop on multilane roads when a vehicle in another lane stops to allow a pedestrian to cross. This issue was brought into focus earlier this month when video showed a van striking a woman walking in a River Road crosswalk on Oct. 4. The woman suffered nonlife-threatening injuries in the collision, while the driver was later charged with passing a vehicle stopped for a pedestrian—a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of $500, two months in jail or both.
Didone said the video showed the pedestrian who was struck appeared to be on her cellphone. He urged pedestrians to pay attention while crossing roadways.
“Pedestrians need to do their part,” Didone said.
About 400 pedestrian and cyclist collisions involving vehicles occur annually in the county and approximately 10 of them are fatal, according to police. Didone said in the past 16 days there have been five serious collisions.
“If this continues, we’re set to have one of the worst years in a long time,” Didone said.
Billing said the county this year agreed to participate in the Vision Zero program that emphasizes road design and engineering to prevent fatal collisions. He said the River Road crosswalk where the woman was struck earlier this month and a crossing of Veirs Mill Road at Turkey Branch Parkway where two cyclists were killed in separate incidents in the past year are examples of poorly designed road crossings.
“If we’re going to be a vision zero community we have to start acting with urgency,” Billing said. “There has to be urgency because people are literally dying on our streets.”
Didone said in both Veirs Mill Road collisions the bicyclists were determined to be at fault after police investigations.
“Why was that?” Didone asked. “Because the witnesses observed that the bicyclists did what bicyclists do far too frequently. They do not want to slow their momentum or come to a stop before entering the roadway.”
The County Council has since requested that the state install additional improvements to the crossing to reduce vehicle speeds after the second bicyclist was killed over the summer.