— Three University of Maryland students crossed U.S. 1 this weekend, hours after a fatal hit-and-run on the same stretch of road.
The students said they know jaywalking on the major thoroughfare is dangerous — three people have been struck and killed by drivers there in the past six months — but they said they've become accustomed to drivers yielding to them on campus.
"Because on campus the cars have to stop for you, we all are so used to it," said Elizabeth Steidl. "So we just walk wherever we want."
College Park and university officials say they are focused more than ever on changing that mentality. University President Wallace D. Loh said he wants to expedite initiatives, such as improved signage and lighting, already underway in partnership with the State Highway Administration, which has jurisdiction over the road.
"All I'm urging them to do is expedite the process," Loh said. "We cannot have more deaths and injuries of young people."
Loh said he has arranged to meet Tuesday with SHA administrator Melinda Peters to discuss the problem. He pointed out that while College Park is largely deserted right now, students will return for the fall semester in a matter of weeks.
College Park City Councilman Robert W. Day said the pedestrian deaths have been "heartbreaking to everybody in College Park" and called for an "ideological change of mindset" to prevent further tragedies.
"It's got to be a consistent message from all sides," he said. "We need to develop a message reaching out to say, 'Yes, this is a college atmosphere, but we have a major state highway coming through our town.'"
Janelle Marie Oni, 21, of Randallstown was crossing U.S. 1 near Hartwick Road about 3 a.m. Sunday when she was struck and killed by a minivan, police said. Jacky Luangraj, 33, of Manassas, Va., who police said was driving the car, was charged with negligent vehicular homicide, driving under the influence and reckless endangerment. Luangraj's blood-alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent at the time of his arrest, police said.
Corey Hubbard, a 22-year-old Maryland student, was killed in a hit-and-run on U.S. 1 near Knox Road in January. In April, George Washington University student Carlos Pacanins, 23, was killed crossing near the same intersection.
The highway administration has made several changes on U.S. 1, including installing warning signs for drivers that read "State law — stop for pedestrian crosswalks" and "Do not block intersection."
For pedestrians, there are now "No pedestrian" signs in the median facing sidewalks, "No pedestrian crossing" markings along curbs and repainted crosswalk markings at intersections.
SHA crews also trimmed trees and modified traffic signal timing so there is a shorter wait time for pedestrians and a longer time for them to cross.
By fall, officials plan to switch traffic lights to LED lights and install a flashing yellow light with a sign warning of the pedestrian area. In addition, the SHA has done a speed analysis and plans to review lighting in the area, design new median barriers to discourage people from crossing in the middle of the block, and add countdown signals to pedestrian crosswalks.
The work so far has cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to the highway administration, which did not have a specific estimate for the total cost.
Loh praised the changes that have been made. But he's also pushing for a lower speed limit, brighter streetlights and more traffic signals on the stretch of U.S. 1 through the heart of College Park's downtown.
Students and businesses also have proposed measures, such as adding officer foot patrols and speed traps, and making the road pedestrian-only on weekend nights, to make U.S. 1 safer. The stretch includes many bars, restaurants and stores frequented by students.
Lauren Luecking, a junior English, government and politics student, said she sees drunken people walking in the street at night when she's working at R. J. Bentley's Restaurant.
"I always encourage people to cross at the crosswalk," Luecking said. "I'll stand at the hostess stand and yell at people on the street and tell them to cross at the crosswalk when I feel like they're being drunk or stupid."
Chris Wood, who has worked at Cornerstone Grill & Loft for more than 9 years, said he wants to see U.S. 1 closed from Knox Road to Guilford Road on Thursday through Saturday nights, when he said most accidents happen. Caution tape that was put up in the spring didn't deter pedestrians from spilling into the street, and reckless drivers often do 50 mph in the bar area, he said.
"There's a lot of jaywalking going on, and a lot of people speeding through here," he said. "It's a combination of people not watching where they're going and people speeding through here."
Day, who represents a district that encompasses part of the bar area, said the idea has been considered but would be "extremely difficult" because a detour would route traffic through neighborhoods.
"I don't think that's the best answer, but I don't think it has been taken off the table completely," he said.
Melissa Lam, who was a student at the university before she became manager at Plato's Diner, said the road has become so dangerous that she no longer rides her bicycle to work. She said the various stakeholders, including students and residents, need to work together.
"I think we look too much at this issue of whose fault it is instead of looking at a solution," Lam said.
After Pacanins' death, officials from College Park, the university, police and SHA created a public relations campaign called "Walk Smart College Park!"
Loh said he's visited U.S. 1 late on weekend nights to see dangerous pedestrian and driver behavior for himself. He's seen students near a bar on one side of the street spot friends across the street and dart across, even though they are far away from a crosswalk.
"There are literally scores of young people crossing in the middle of the street after midnight. It's not just one or two," Loh said.
Loh said students also need to take responsibility for their actions, and the university has reached out to fraternities and sororities to spread the word. But, he said, that's not enough.
"When you have hundreds of people crossing at any given time because there are thousands in these bars, just pleading with them is not sufficient. Just issuing tickets isn't going to do it," he said.
During the spring semester, Loh said, campus police ramped up their efforts. On weekends, they parked cruisers in intersections, conducted foot patrols and set up temporary barriers with police tape along the sidewalks — all in hopes of funneling pedestrians toward crosswalks and out of the road, Loh said. None of those practices were in place this past weekend when Oni was killed because of the smaller summertime crowds.
"It breaks my heart she just graduated from college. … She did not deserve to come here and be killed," Loh said.
Kayleigh Poulsen, a May graduate and server at Cornerstone, said she knew Hubbard, who was killed in January. Something more needs to be done, she said.
"It's terrifying," Poulsen said. "You want to feel safe walking around. You want to feel like people are being smart, especially when they leave our businesses. … At the end of the day, it's a lot of people; it's the busiest road in College Park. It's scary."
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