2022 | Transportation

Is Montgomery County making ‘Vision Zero’ progress on road safety? Not enough, some observers say

Recent increase in pedestrian road deaths included two in one-hour stretch Monday

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A memorial on Veirs Mill Road is dedicated to multiple pedestrians who have died in a similar stretch of the road after being struck by vehicles. Some observers say more action is needed to reduce the number of pedestrian and bicycle deaths on roads in Montgomery County.

Photo courtesy of Action Committee for Transit

This story was updated at 3:50 p.m. Jan. 24, 2022, to add comments from the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration.

Vision Zero, Montgomery County’s initiative to end serious and fatal crashes in the county by 2030, isn’t making enough progress, some Montgomery County observers say.

On Monday, vehicle crashes killed pedestrians in Silver Spring and Wheaton less than an hour apart. In both cases, the deaths on Monday happened in the same place pedestrians were killed last year.

Through the first 20 days of 2022, pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in Montgomery County have included:

Additionally, a man who was walking on the Beltway was struck and killed on Monday, and a man has been charged with intentionally running over his wife in Silver Spring last week, killing her, according to Montgomery County police.

Peter Gray, the co-chair of the advocacy group Montgomery County Families for Safe Streets, told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that it’s troubling that two of the most recent fatal crashes happened near memorials for other pedestrians killed on the roads in past years.

Gray noted that the Montgomery County Families for Safe Streets’ website shows five requests the group has made of the State Highway Administration (SHA) since 2019.

They include placing a HAWK traffic signal on Layhill Road in Glenmont, improving the intersection of Halpine Road and Md. 355, and installing crosswalks and pedestrian signals at the intersection of Clopper and Mateny Roads in Germantown.

“None of those things have been done, so it’s no surprise to me that more people are dying at the exact same places they were in 2021,” Gray said. “And they’re gonna continue to die until those roads are actually physically remade.”

The state is responsible for maintaining state highways in the county. The county is responsible for maintaining other surface roads.

In an emailed statement on Friday afternoon, Tina Regester, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, wrote: “Each time there is a serious crash, we review the police report and work with law enforcement to determine what happened and what can be done from an engineering standpoint to make our roads safer for vehicles and vulnerable users such as pedestrians and cyclists.”

She continued: “Since 2019 MDOT SHA has made more than 140 traffic safety improvements along roadways in Montgomery County, including adding and improving crosswalks, narrowing lanes, and reducing speed limits. In addition, MDPT SHA implemented a road diet in some areas by reducing lanes … along with other traffic calming measures.”

Also, she wrote, the department has created the state’s first Pedestrian Safety Action Plan to focus on pedestrians and bicyclists in future project plans and designs.

Gray said he thinks the SHA takes the concerns seriously, but its hands are tied.

“They don’t have enough money each year to undertake these efforts. Another thing is they probably don’t have enough personnel or staff to undertake these efforts,” he said.

Gray said he’s excited about a bill sponsored by Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Rockville) being considered this state legislative session in Maryland. The bill would require the SHA to conduct a review any time a pedestrian or bicyclist fatality occurs on a state highway within six months of the crash.

Rhena Tantisunthorn, who lives near an intersection with Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, said she’s become frustrated with the bureaucracy in trying to advocate for pedestrian safety. She said she’s tried getting in touch with Gov. Larry Hogan’s office, the SHA and county officials, but is constantly told to contact another agency.

“You try to contact the county, and they’re like, ‘OK, that’s the state’s issue.’ You try to contact the state, they’re like, ‘Oh that’s the county’s issue,’” she said. “You try to make requests for changes and it’s just like … ‘Oh, yeah. We’re working on that. We’re doing the studies. We’re waiting for the studies to be done.’ And you’re just like, ‘People are dying.’ Can we not just maybe do something? Like fix it?”

Like Gray, Tantisunthorn said she’s worried that two recent pedestrian deaths occurred in places where other pedestrians were killed during the past year.

Tantisunthorn said she’s sent officials “picture after picture” of families walking to local parks because there are no sidewalks. Her children used to walk to a neighborhood school, but she said her family switched to homeschooling, in part because walking wasn’t safe.

Additionally, she said, when a car ran off the road and into her fence, she stopped feeling comfortable letting her kids play outside.

“It seems like the most important thing is moving cars as fast as they can, with little to no regard that people live in these areas,” she said.

Tantisunthorn said she came close to hitting a pedestrian recently. She wonders if giving pedestrians their own signal at this intersection, without giving drivers a green light, would have made a difference.

“I was making a left, and I had a green light to go, and I just completely forgot to check the crosswalk,” she said.

Banning a right turn on a red light at some intersections could also help, Tantisunthorn said.

Vision Zero coordinator remains optimistic

According to data from the county’s department of transportation, the breakdown of pedestrian facilities in recent years is:

  • 11 in 2017
  • 14 in 2018
  • 13 in 2019
  • 16 in 2020
  • 7 in 2021

There was also one bicycle fatality in the county each year from 2017 to 2020, according to county data.

State data shows that traffic on interstates 270 and 495 dropped a lot in 2020, during the pandemic, then rebounded in 2021.

Wade Holland, the county’s Vision Zero coordinator, told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the fatality totals do not include people who were killed on while on foot on Interstate 495, Interstate 270 or the Intercounty Connector. Law enforcement agencies sometimes refer to these people as “pedestrians” when they stop and get out of their vehicle.

Holland, who was hired two years ago, said Tuesday that the goal is to reduce the number of people killed on the road ever year, but it’s too soon to determine how much progress is being made.

“We definitely can’t wave the ‘mission accomplished’ flag based on one year of data,” he said.

On Monday, police said Moges Alemnew Webete, 70, of Adelphi, was killed while crossing the southbound lanes of New Hampshire Avenue near the intersection of Elton Road around 5:30 p.m.

Less than an hour later, police said, a driver in a Volkswagen Passat struck Luz Marina Roa, 59, of Wheaton, on Veirs Mill Road near Ferrara Avenue then fled the scene. Roa was pronounced dead at the scene.

The locations where the two crashes occurred are in corridors that the county is prioritizing for improvements, Holland said on Tuesday.

Holland pointed to a number of projects that SHA and the county’s Department of Transportation are working on. They include:

  • The recent installation of a new traffic signal at Veirs Mill Road and Norris Drive
  • The installation of more than 30 new signals and pedestrian beacons by SHA and the county since the Vision Zero program started
  • Funding by the county of a new HAWK signal at Veirs Mill Road and Andrew Street
  • Nearly $15 million set aside in the county executive’s six-year capital budget for pedestrian and bike safety improvements on Veirs Mill and Randolph roads.
  • Plans to advance bus rapid transit on Veirs Mill Road and New Hampshire Avenue

Holland said the county and the state have prioritized studying and making changes to the Veirs Mill and New Hampshire Avenue corridors based on the prevalence of serious and fatal crashes.

“If we don’t move these projects forward, we won’t really see a large change in the safety performance of these roads,” he said.

Many county officials have pointed out that low-income individuals and people of color are disproportionately injured or killed in pedestrian and bicycle crashes.

While the county doesn’t keep specific racial or income data on crash victims, Holland said it examines the socio-demographics of the neighborhoods where crashes occur.

“It goes back to the way that these roads in these communities were designed, in terms of pushing a lot of high speed traffic through these low-income communities,” he said.

Holland said that between intoxication, distracted driving, speeding and people not wearing seatbelts, there are plenty of reasons why pedestrian fatalities can’t always be prevented by infrastructure improvements.

“At the end of the day, I can install all the traffic signals I want, but if the driver blows through a red light, that’s something we don’t have control over,” he said.

“There’s no one perfect tool. We’re all in this together. But we’ve got to believe in our program and if we do our part, we can get closer to zero.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com