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Locals say Jarrettsville Pike needs caution from drivers

To Phoenix-area residents, it's simply "dead man's curve" — a twisting section of Jarrettsville Pike that lies at the bottom of a steep hill near a meandering stream, where mature trees block the line of sight in both directions.

Four yellow signs warn of dangers: the sharp curve, the steep grade, crossing deer and an upcoming school bus stop. But drivers often ignore the signs and speed down the hill, say those who live and work in the area.

"If it was on flat ground, it wouldn't be an issue, but because of that hill, people have some speed and they just don't know what's coming," said Bob Thompson, who co-owns Lothorian Pools at the bottom of the hill, just beyond the curve. "Just a month ago, I saw a kid pass someone else at the bottom of the curve."

Locals say the curve is just one of many dangerous spots on Jarrettsville Pike, where there were almost 500 accidents from 2007 through 2011 — about two per week — including 73 that involved personal injury. Two of the most recent accidents there left four people dead.

Those deaths have reinforced concerns lately, locals said, for what they see as a rural route turned raceway.

The "Pike," as it's commonly referred to, snakes north from the Towson area and into Harford County, serving as a major north-south artery for more than 14,000 cars a day. It slices through a largely rural area — dotted with large farms with long stretches of white fencing — but carries a suburban and exurban commuting population that surges each morning and afternoon. The speed limit ranges as high as 50 mph.

Police in Baltimore and Harford counties, as well as a State Highway Administration spokeswoman, said the number of accidents along the road doesn't mean it is particularly troublesome or dangerous.

In fact, the road's worst curves were largely straightened out when the highway administration re-engineered a stretch just up the hill from Dulaney Valley Road — where the original "dead man's curve" had been — in the late 1980s, according to Sgt. David Jansky, who has served on the Baltimore County Police Department's motor vehicle crash team for almost 10 years.

Valerie Burnette Edgar, a highway administration spokeswoman, said the agency's engineers always review roadways after fatal crashes, and they haven't found any problems with Jarrettsville Pike in recent years.

But those who drive the road regularly said they must constantly watch for dangers.

"There's one place where I hug the curve as I'm rounding the bend in case there is a novice coming southbound who might not be on their side," said Deborah Glinowiecki, principal at Jacksonville Elementary School, which is south of the roadway's notorious Four Corners intersection. "So you kind of maneuver your car to be safe."

While fatal accidents on the pike are rare, they resonate in the community when they occur, residents said, because people can easily put themselves in the shoes of the deceased.

It was at "dead man's curve" that 17-year-old Loyola Blakefield high school junior Dennis Woolford died in 2008, after his car collided with another vehicle — the only fatal accident along the roadway from 2007 through 2011, according to Baltimore County police. The area had its ominous nickname before Woolford's death.

The two fatal accidents last month occurred in the span of two days. One took the lives of two men from Dundalk and one man from Bel Air, the other the life of a Fallston woman.

Police said 26-year-old Daniel Kenneth Jagodzinski of Dundalk drove across the roadway's center line in dense fog and wet road conditions and his car collided with a milk truck, killing him and two friends, Keith Sheldon Weimer, 24, of Dundalk, and Justin Christian Malone, 25, of Bel Air. Two days later and about two miles away, Sherry Ann Baquol, 51, died after driving off the road and striking a stone wall, several fence posts and a utility pole.

As in Woolford's collision in 2008, the two recent accidents were caused by a loss of control on the narrow, winding road, according to police, and they have reopened a local dialogue about the roadway and its dangers.

"Obviously, the recent accidents have been talked about," said Douglas Oakley, whose stepdaughter, Gabrielle Payne, was driving the car that Woolford's vehicle struck in 2008. Payne, then a 17-year-old student at Harford Lutheran School in Bel Air, was sent to Maryland Shock Trauma Center with non-life-threatening injuries and later released.

"I think everybody kind of shares the opinion that the road is long, it's narrow, and accidents happen," said Oakley, president of the Greater Jacksonville Association, while noting his stepdaughter's accident is still hard to think about. "If you're going fast and it's wet, you'd better be careful."

Congestion and back-ups

Highway administration data show traffic volume on the roadway has been trending slightly downward in the past five years. But the average 8,400 vehicles that used the roadway north of Sweet Air Road each day in 1981 would likely seem a trickle compared with the 14,381 that used it per day in 2011.

There also has been an increase in traffic congestion at key intersections, people in the area said. The highway administration is drafting upgrades to the Four Corners intersection of Jarrettsville Pike and Paper Mill and Sweet Air roads because of severe back-ups.

The congestion forces drivers to slow down, but presents its own dangers, police said.

"People just have to be more safe and be more conscious of what's going on around them because the roads are more congested," said Lt. Charles "Chuck" Moore, commander of the Bel Air barrack of the Maryland State Police, which responds to accidents along the northern stretch of the road. "The room for error has decreased significantly because of the congestion."

Glinowiecki said there is a "mass exodus" of cars from Towson that passes Jacksonville Elementary every afternoon, making departures dangerous.

Northbound traffic routinely backs up from the Four Corners intersection to Hillendale Heights Road, which the school sits on, and drivers must inch out between stopped northbound cars to head south, Glinowiecki said.

Drivers generally give school buses a wide berth, but some teachers and interns who have left the school and tried to pull onto southbound Jarrettsville Pike have been hit by oncoming traffic, Glinowiecki said.

She now tells staffers and parents unfamiliar with the road to go north regardless of their destination and turn around in a nearby parking lot if need be.

According to C. David Ward, traffic along Jarrettsville Pike has gotten increasingly worse since he first purchased his home along the roadway in 1970.

"We've talked about it for years and years and years, they've looked at feeder roads to try to alleviate some of the traffic on the pike, but nothing ever happened," Ward said. "In my lifetime being here, I've gone from a time when I could probably ride a bicycle in the evening from my house to Jacksonville and see a handful of cars, to a time when it just never stops."

Ward, who was paralyzed below the breastbone in a 1977 fall, has completely retrofitted his historic home — which sits just feet from the road — to meet his needs.

He said he has seen all kinds of accidents over the years, including one in which a young woman died after crashing along a curve near his home and another in which a man's vehicle crashed so far into the woods that police couldn't see it beneath the trees. Ward is amazed there haven't been more deaths along the roadway in recent years.

"Luckily, we haven't had as many people hurt as possible," Ward said. "They just don't drive sensibly down Jarrettsville Pike. It's not made to go 65, 70 miles per hour."

His personal assistant, Dena Bird, who also lives in the home, agreed: "When they drive by, it's driving by at 90 miles per hour. You can really hear it."

krector@baltsun.com

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