The Maryland State Highway Administration plans to lower the speed limit and add median fencing and a new traffic light on U.S. 1 near the University of Maryland, College Park, after a startling number of pedestrian deaths on the road.
Officials decided to expedite the safety measures — ideas that came from a months-long study of the area — to have them in place by the upcoming fall semester. Three pedestrians have been killed crossing U.S. 1 in the past six months.
Beginning Aug. 1, U.S. 1's speed limit will be dropped to 25 mph from 30 mph between Guilford and Berwyn roads, the highway administration said. And the College Park City Council will vote Tuesday on Mayor Andrew M. Fellows' proposal to expand speed camera hours to enforce the lower speed limit during times of heavy pedestrian traffic.
To encourage pedestrians to use crosswalks instead of jaywalking, median fencing between Knox and Hartwick roads will be installed by the end of August. A new pedestrian signal at Hartwick will flash yellow to U.S. 1 traffic, flash red to Hartwick traffic, and turn to solid red in all directions when a pedestrian presses the walk button.
University President Wallace D. Loh said he expects the added safety regulations will have "a dramatic effect" and called them "a huge step" toward making the road safer.
Loh alluded to a pedestrian-first culture that exists on many college campuses, where students expect cars to stop for them.
Officials have worked with student focus groups on a "Walk Smart College Park" campaign to remind students of the risks of jaywalking on U.S. 1. The university plans to reach out to students during freshman orientation, at residence halls and Greek life houses, and to use police patrols and social media to educate them on the new regulations, Loh said.
The three student deaths came amid a pedestrian safety study by the highway administration on the stretch of road, which is lined with bars and late-night restaurants.
Janelle Marie Oni, 21, of Randallstown was crossing U.S. 1 near Hartwick Road about 3 a.m. on July 6 when she was struck and killed by a minivan driven by a drunken driver, 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.
More drastic, community-driven proposals included detouring traffic from the area during high-pedestrian traffic times and building a bridge over the street. But officials have not acted on those ideas.
More than 30,000 students will return next month to find an increased police presence in patrol cars and on foot, according to David B. Mitchell, the school's police chief.
The chief said officers will use friendly community-policing methods to encourage people to follow the rules, rather than ticketing jaywalkers right away. "Fifty bucks buys a whole lot of beer," he recently told a group of college students getting ready to cross illegally in front of him. He said they laughed but got the point.
Students said that fencing and increased policing likely will irritate pedestrians, but they understood the safety concerns.
"It'll be a pain, but it will make it safer," said Zac Brightbill, a 21-year-old senior.
He and other students said the lower speed limit will help keep reckless drivers in check, but that pedestrians share the burden not to put themselves in harm's way.
He said he noticed more police presence on the block during the spring, but added: "It comes down to the students. You've got to be smart when you're coming out of the bars."
Dez Wells, a senior guard and forward on the Terps men's basketball team, echoed that sentiment after leaving Smoothie King on U.S. 1 and Knox Road Monday afternoon.
"They've got to be more careful when they're out drinking," he said. "Ultimately it's up to the people who are running across the road."
Mitchell said police also are preparing for an influx of visitors from Big Ten schools visiting College Park for the first time.
Ohio State fans, he said, "will be another 20,000. We'll have our work cut out for us."
Fellows, the College Park mayor, said he hoped the measures will make what is already "a great college town a safe college town for pedestrians."
Alex Tabatabai, a 20-year-old student from Montgomery County, said he thinks officials should focus on preventative measures but said median fencing won't do the trick.
"If they're desperate enough to be running across the highway, people are going to look for a way across," he said. "I understand the feeling of need for it. This is a college town, there are people out and about not paying attention."
Maryland State Highway Administrator Melinda B. Peters said she knows the solutions are short-term, but they're part of a larger plan for the area.
"We know this is a step in the right direction," she said.