Maryland pedestrian accidents pile up on state roads

Associated Press

Consuelo Anglarill, 82, took a bus to the Safeway on Georgia Ave. on Jan. 15. Her daughter, Elizabeth, suspects the retired nanny was simply bored that Sunday morning.

"She doesn't like being home alone."

As the elderly woman crossed the busy state highway in front of the grocery store, a car struck and killed her.

Just three days earlier, a woman was hit and seriously injured at the same intersection.

It's among the most dangerous spots for pedestrians on Maryland state roads, a Capital News Service analysis of accident data found.

Since 2015, 22 people have been hit on Georgia and 20 more on one of three other state-maintained roads that crisscross the Washington suburb of about 50,000 where the Wheaton Metro station, Westfield shopping mall and a large walking community of Hispanic immigrants are located.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has known about the problem for years. The area around Georgia and Reedie Drive where Anglarill was hit had been flagged by Montgomery County in 2011 as hazardous for pedestrians.

The SHA eventually extended the walk signal at the intersection by two to three seconds, in either 2015 or 2016, SHA assistant media relations manager Shanteé Felix said.

More is needed, residents and pedestrian safety advocates say. The SHA could reduce the distance between crosswalks, install median fences on Georgia to discourage jaywalking and lower speed limits.

"People are flying up and down here like it's major highway," said Courtney Jones, 40, who lives nearby and frequently walks to stores and public transportation. "Here, I'm telling you, it's really dangerous."

In June, CNS reported that at least 138 pedestrians had been hit — including eight killed — along a dangerous two-mile stretch of University Boulevard in Langley Park between 2009 and 2016, yet the SHA has done little to address the danger on all but a single intersection of the busy highway in the low-income, immigrant community. After the story ran, the agency re-painted pavement markings at some of the highlighted intersections but said other improvements would be made when the new Purple Line is built. The 16-mile light rail line, which will traverse University, is scheduled to open in 2022.

CNS then analyzed statewide accident data and identified 100 areas on state and U.S. roads maintained by SHA where there were clusters of five or more pedestrians involved in accidents in the past two and a half years. The analysis did not include interstates or Baltimore city, which maintains roads within its limits.

Sean Emerson, an activist with the Action Committee for Transit in Montgomery County, said the SHA is slow to address problem areas.

"In the SHA's mind, even something that might delay the average driver 10-15 seconds, it's like 'Oh, we can't do that,'" said Emerson, who is also a legislative aide to Bethesda state delegate Marc Korman. "It's so inconsequential, yet it would have a huge benefit to the person walking alongside the road."

SHA media relations manager Charlie Gischlar said the idea that SHA cares more about cars than pedestrians is "false." The problem, he said, is that many accidents occur because drivers are careless or pedestrians are texting or using their mobile devices, not paying attention and walking into roads. That is based on his own observations, not SHA statistics, he added.

"Engineering will have little effect on people that are in a trance texting while walking, which is why we say that the majority of pedestrian crashes are, sadly, on the part of highway user (driver or pedestrian) behavior," Gischlar wrote in an email. "We can only educate by asking pedestrians to look up and look out."

Wade Holland, a data analyst with the Montgomery County government, said that while he encourages people to avoid distractions, he has seen no evidence of an "epidemic of pedestrians being struck due to cell phone use." It is possible the problem is underestimated because pedestrians and drivers report their own device use to police after crashes, he said.

However, engineering, coupled with enforcement and education, have reduced serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities on county-maintained roads by a third since 2007, when Montgomery County launched a pedestrian safety initiative, a county report says. As part of the initiative, the county lengthened pedestrian traffic signals, installed new sidewalks and implemented traffic calming projects.

Roads in many postwar suburbs were built for drivers, not pedestrians, said Michael Farrell, program manager for Street Smart, the pedestrian safety campaign of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Now that demographics have changed in communities like Wheaton and Langley Park — with more low-income residents who walk and take public transportation — pedestrians must contend with high traffic speeds, large crossing distances and few intersections for safe passage.

"The reason why we have so many fatalities is not just behavior — it's that so many of the facilities for walking are inherently unsafe," Farrell said.

SHA officials told CNS they investigate the site of every fatal crash. They said they also conduct safety audits along one-mile stretches of state road where 10 pedestrian crashes have occurred over a five-year period to determine if improvements are needed. SHA officials said the audit recommendations are advisory and not all are adopted.

The agency provided a list of 22 locations where audits have occurred but denied a CNS Public Information Act request for copies of them. The letter denying the request said disclosure would be "contrary to the public interest" because "it could be used to attempt to discover MDOT SHA's thought process regarding decisions affecting highway safety."

All but two of the 22 were among the 100 problem spots identified in the CNS analysis.

CNS analyzed Maryland State Police accident data on vehicle collisions with pedestrians on state and U.S. roads outside Baltimore and excluding interstates. SHA maintains most state and federal roads in the rest of the state. On those roads, there were 2,281 accidents involving 2,402 pedestrians, including 509 bicyclists, from 2015 to the first half of 2017. Of those, 1,366 were seriously injured and 147 died.

CNS used a mapping program to identify areas with a high density of accidents on state and US roads. The mapping program used a clustering algorithm that identified 100 areas where a pedestrian was hit within 1,800 feet (about one-third of a mile) of where at least four others were struck.

Georgia was one of the worst state roads, with four clusters of pedestrian accidents on an eight-mile stretch in Montgomery County:

— In Wheaton, 20 of the 42 pedestrians struck by vehicles were seriously injured. One person, Anglarill, was killed.

— To the north in Aspen Hill, 23 people were hit, including 13 who were seriously injured, near the intersection of Georgia and Connecticut Avenue, another state road.

— South of Wheaton, seven people were hit around the intersection of August Drive, including three who were seriously injured. No one was killed.

— Further south, in downtown Silver Spring, 45 were hit, including 25 who were seriously injured and one who was killed.

Asked about pedestrian safety improvements, SHA officials cited four-year-old sidewalk, curb, and gutter repairs and crosswalk restriping in Aspen Hill. They said the agency reconstructed ramps in 2015 for disabled pedestrians in Silver Spring and upgraded traffic signals and bus stops.

In Wheaton, cars often whiz through the tight intersections in an area packed with a Metro station, office buildings, retail shops and a major shopping mall. Sidewalks are narrow in some areas and provide no buffer between pedestrians and the road.

"It's very dangerous," said Michael Sauh, 21, who lives on Georgia near Reedie. "There are lots of people of all types, elderly people, young people.crossing through here."

Construction projects frequently obstruct sections of the sidewalk, he said, and cars often speed and turn corners while pedestrians have the walk sign.

"It's just so stupid right here," he said. "I don't know what can be done to change it."

In College Park, SHA added a traffic light, lowered the speed limit and installed a fence in the median strip after public outcry following the deaths of three pedestrians in a series of accidents on Baltimore Avenue adjacent to the University of Maryland.

In Ocean City, a popular tourist destination, the agency added pedestrian walk signals and walkways and reduced speed limits along the eight-lane Coastal Highway after a rash of accidents, including two fatalities, in 2012.

The highway remains among the most dangerous in the state. The CNS analysis identified four clusters of accidents in Ocean City involving a total of 83 pedestrians since 2015. That included 59 serious injuries and two deaths. SHA is installing a 40-block median fence, set to be complete by the summer tourism season, to try to reduce the toll.

In contrast, Montgomery County entered into negotiations with the SHA in 2010 about the construction of a median fence on Georgia to deter jaywalking, but the two agencies failed to reach an agreement, said Jeff Dunckel, former pedestrian safety coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. He now heads the pedestrian and bike safety program at the state's highway safety office.

Felix said the SHA is still open to negotiations.

Last January, Consuelo Anglarill began crossing Georgia at Reedie Drive about two car lengths outside a crosswalk, according to a police report and witness interviews. She waited on the median strip until a car in the closest lane stopped to let her cross to the other side. But another car sped through the intersection, traveling over 50 mph in the 35 mph-zone, according to the police report. The driver slammed the brakes when he saw Consuelo, but the car skidded into her, flinging her into the air, witnesses said.

"There was no way he could've seen her," said Bernadette Hall, who witnessed the accident. "He hit the brakes, but by that time, it was too late."

Consuelo was taken to Suburban Hospital and died 14 days later.

Her family felt her absence this Thanksgiving, their first holiday spent without her, said her daughter Elizabeth Anglarill, 48, of Silver Spring. The Bolivian immigrant had two children and two grandchildren. Marinating and seasoning the turkey had always been Consuelo's duty, and Elizabeth had worried about preparing it this year, nearly outsourcing the job to catering before her husband stepped in to help.

Her mother was the "heart of the family," Elizabeth said.

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