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Tunnel, bridge violations merit different fines

Last month's horrific crash that threw a 70-year-old retired sportswriter off the Bay Bridge and killed him underscores the fact that long bridges and tunnels are an especially dangerous place for drivers to be on less than their best behavior.

The investigation into the April 18 crash in which a truck rear-ended a broken-down car isn't complete, so judgment will be suspended as to who was at fault.

But if that crash was the result of a traffic infraction, it raises a question about why violations on the Bay Bridge and other toll bridges and in tunnels are treated like garden-variety offenses.

Maryland's toll bridges and tunnels are especially hazardous places because they are tightly enclosed and lack shoulders for disabled vehicles to pull out of the way. Extra care should be mandatory.

Would it be at all unreasonable to double or even triple the fines for violations on toll bridges and tunnels? Signs could be erected on the approaches to these facilities warning about the enhanced penalties.

It's not just the added danger. It's also that when someone causes a traffic crash on the bridge, that driver is often responsible for a backup that can rob hours from fellow motorists' lives.

The bridges and tunnels are also especially difficult places for police to enforce the law by conventional means. After all, officers can't lurk by the side of the road in the middle of the Bay Bridge or Fort McHenry Tunnel.

That's why automated enforcement makes a great deal of sense on these facilities. The Maryland Transportation Authority could ask the General Assembly for both the stiffer fines and permission to use cameras to enforce laws against speeding, tailgating and lane-changing on bridges and in tunnels.

The worst that can happen is that legislators would say no.

Stay in your car

If you find yourself stranded on a toll facility such as the Bay Bridge, please resist the natural impulse to get out of the car.

It isn't easy. It's hard to imagine something more frightening than occupying a disabled vehicle in a traffic lane of the Bay Bridge. But that's the advice given by the transportation authority, which knows a thing or two about toll facilities.

As long as you're in an enclosed vehicle, there's a metal barrier between you and bodily harm. And help is never far away at Maryland toll bridges and tunnels. Even if you're caught without a cellphone, someone else will call the police.

Hang tight. Put on the blinkers. And hope that your fellow drivers are paying attention.

Walking in Fells Point

Residents of Fells Point have already won one round in their battle for safer streets for pedestrians, according to City Councilman Jim Kraft.

After local activist Rebecca Gershenson Smith raised concerns about changes to the timing of pedestrian signals at busy intersections in the historic neighborhood, the city has agreed to install countdown timer signs at corners in Fells Point, Kraft said.

That doesn't answer all of Smith's requests for changes, but it's a big one.

Smith raised the issue with the city Transportation Department, Kraft and The Baltimore Sun after reaching the conclusion that recent moves by city traffic engineers had made Fells Point less walkable.

"At certain key intersections in high pedestrian traffic areas in business districts, pedestrians do not even receive a walk signal at all unless they press a button," she wrote. "Walkers are waiting for unreasonable periods of time to cross the street and often through two cycles of the light if they do not press the button in time."

In an interview, Smith, the mother of three young children, said the recent changes have been especially hard on pedestrians with kids in tow.

"People with small children are especially sensitive to these issues," she said. "I feel like every time you get to an intersection now, it's giving you the message that this intersection is meant for cars and not for walkers."

That, she said, is a violation of the Complete Streets policy recently adopted by the City Council.

Smith made the point that pedestrian buttons are appropriate for intersections with low pedestrian traffic. But Fells Point, she said, has some of the heaviest foot traffic in the city.

To its credit, the city has not blown off the complaints of Smith and other Southeast Baltimore parents. Late last week, city deputy transportation director Jamie Kendrick was scheduled to meet with residents to jointly observe how recent changes are affecting pedestrian traffic.

Drinking and riding MARC

Unlike travelers on the Maryland Transit Administration's other services, riders on the MARC commuter trains have long enjoyed the privilege of consuming adult beverages while aboard. But there has been enough bad behavior recently that MARC director John Hovatter sent out a warning to riders not to abuse the MTA's hospitality.

MTA spokesman Terry Owens said he knows of no incidents that have resulted in an arrest, but he said the agency has heard enough complaints from crew members and passengers that Hovatter decided to send a message, which said in part:

"While consumption of alcoholic beverages is permitted on MARC trains, passengers are reminded that this must be done responsibly. We have seen an increase in the number of complaints about alcohol consumption on trains and disruptive behavior that has included loud talking, profanity, and in some cases, physical altercations that [have] been associated with drinking.

"Consumption of alcohol on MARC trains is a privilege, not a right. The MARC Train Service reserves the right to restrict alcohol consumption if passenger behavior is not appropriate and remove from the train those individuals that fail to abide by MARC rules and guidelines. This includes the use of profanity, refusal to follow instructions from conductors, and intimidation or threats to other passengers."

Beer lovers of MARC, unite! Flaunt your moderation, and don't let a few fools spoil a good deal.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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