The Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday backed additional money for a new safety analysis that experts say could predict the likelihood of fatal crashes.
The funding request from the county’s Planning Department comes as the county grapples with a series of fatal pedestrian crashes and other serious injuries, leaving officials under increasing pressure to respond.
There have been three traffic fatalities in the first three weeks of 2020, including two pedestrians who died in separate crashes within 24 hours while trying to cross Rockville Pike. Another pedestrian was seriously injured while crossing Shady Grove Road on Tuesday.
Many of the most serious crashes occur on suburban roadways originally engineered to prioritize vehicle traffic. That’s become a problem as the county becomes increasingly urbanized, experts say, with more pedestrians and cyclists sharing the road with vehicles.
Among safety advocates, there’s a growing call to focus attention on driver behavior, with an emphasis on reducing distracted driving and speeding. Planning Commissioner Partap Verma amplified the calls on Thursday during a briefing on the county’s Vision Zero plan, which aims to significantly reduce or even eliminate traffic fatalities by 2030.
He shared his own efforts to obey posted speed limits on county roads — despite frequent frustration from other drivers — and suggested a “Drive the Speed Limit” safety campaign to “change the culture” of driving in the county.
But Planning Department transportation supervisor David Anspacher was skeptical that awareness campaigns could significantly reduce pedestrian deaths. Local jurisdictions have dedicated resources to similar programs — such as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ “Street Smart” campaign — even as fatalities mount across the region.
“There need to be engineering changes,” he said during the briefing. “We need to make it so people can’t drive as fast.”
The need for roadway improvements drove the department’s request for better research, Anspacher said.
The Planning Board supports a $125,000 transfer from personnel savings to the department’s fiscal 2020 budget to fund a new predictive safety analysis program, which uses data to predict future crashes. The money still has to be approved by the County Council.
The technique has only been used in a handful of places across the country, Anspacher said, but it’s led to significant improvements on dangerous roads.
In Missouri, for example, transportation officials analyzed crash data and found higher rates of severe crashes on roads without an edgeline stripe. Officials preemptively painted stripes on 7,500 miles of highway — even stretches with no record of serious crashes — and saw a 15.2% decrease in total crashes.
In Montgomery County, Anspacher said, officials would analyze anticipated pedestrian, cyclist, and vehicle traffic on local roads and compile data on engineering features — including crosswalks, road width, and traffic signals. By adding in crash data, officials can predict where crashes are most likely to occur.
The analysis makes it easier for the county to allocate funding toward roads with the highest likelihood of injuries and fatalities. John Hoobler, a capital projects manager for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, said it generally takes a year to launch and implement the program.
That made it especially important for the Planning Department to start as soon as possible, he added. The county aims to release a 10-year Vision Zero plan by late 2020 and plans to use predictive analysis to guide its long-term recommendations.
On Thursday, the department introduced Jesse Cohn, a new coordinator hired to oversee its Vision Zero efforts. Wade Holland, a data analyst for MCDOT, also announced that County Executive Marc Elrich had hired a countywide Vision Zero coordinator to coordinate and implement the plan across departments.
Holland declined to provide more information about the new hire, but said the county would unveil more details on Monday. Under the original Vision Zero plan — first adopted two years ago — the county should have hired a coordinator by the start of 2018.
In an earlier interview, Holland said the position became mired in bureaucracy soon after the Vision Zero plan was released. Then-County Executive Ike Leggett decided the position should be filled by a contractor, which required county employees to draft and release a lengthy call for proposals.
But when Elrich took office — the position still unfilled — he decided to create a full-time position within the county executive’s office. Holland said it took additional time to draft a job description and fill the position around the holidays.
Council Member Evan Glass, one of the most frequent critics of the hiring delay, responded to the news enthusiastically on Thursday at a joint meeting of the council’s Education & Culture and Transportation & Environment committees.
Both committees met to discuss school bus stop safety after two public students were struck near Montgomery County Public School bus stops. One student was killed. The other was seriously injured.
“What I hope and expect from this Vision Zero coordinator is to cut through the bureaucracy — to force MCPS to work with the Department of Transportation and to work with the police department” Glass said. “And if that collaboration and cooperation is not happening, that light will be shined and names will be called.”