DON DOWNER carefully looks up and down Beechwood Drive before venturing across the empty street in Allview to talk to a neighbor.
It isn't long before their conversation about tomato plants and a possible overnight frost is interrupted by the sound of an approaching car's engine being revved up into a higher gear.
As he has done many times, Mr. Downer turns around and tries to catch the eye of the driver before he roars past. Mr. Downer sticks out both hands, palms down, and repeats a pushing motion toward the ground. He is signaling for the motorist to slow down.
Sometimes, Mr. Downer gets the response he's asking for.
Other times, he is ignored. Still other times, the driver lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of Mr. Downer's attempt to play traffic cop.
No. 1 complaint
Somebody's got to do it. In neighborhoods across Howard County, speeders are putting lives and property at risk. A police spokesman, Sgt. Morris Carroll, says complaints about speeders probably rank No. 1 in Howard County. The police catch some, but they can't be everywhere.
The county has been putting "traffic calming" devices on roads where drivers are speeding. County Planning and Zoning Director Joseph Rutter Jr. says the speed humps and relined streets are an admission that the county "over-engineered" some roads; that is, it built them wider than they needed to be.
Wide streets are an invitation to speed. Mr. Rutter says some Howard County streets are as wide as 44 feet. "They look like four-lane highways to some people, and they drive on them as if they are," he said.
The County Council earlier this year adopted strict standards requiring developers to construct narrower and more curved streets in new subdivisions. Opponents said narrow, squiggly roads are dangerous. But the traffic engineers said more accidents occur on wide straight streets that encourage people to speed.
The revised standards may help calm traffic on new roads. But Edward Walter, county traffic engineering chief, says speeding is common in about 150 existing problem spots.
When people complain to Mr. Walter's department, a 48-hour survey of traffic on that street is ordered. But the county will spend money to install some type of calming device only if the number of speeders exceeds 1,000.
Painting drawing lines to create distinct, narrower driving lanes is the easiest thing to do. But Mr. Walter said the county is beginning to reconsider their value.
It was believed that edge lines would slow traffic by at least 4 to 5 mph. Instead, the decrease in speed has been only 1 to 2 mph in most cases and has resulted in no change in driving habits on some Howard roads, according to Mr. Walter.
"As people become accustomed to the changes you've made, their speed picks back up," Mr. Rutter said.
Speed humps may do better modifying behavior and -- at $1,500 each to install -- they're affordable.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker is increasing the traffic-calming budget from $50,000 this year to $250,000 in fiscal 1999, so we may see more speed humps throughout the county.
Other devices to slow motorists include traffic circles and medians at intersections. We may also see more "chokers," where the curb is widened at certain points to narrow the street.
But on Beechwood Drive, where Mr. Downer continues to stare down speeders, it's doubtful any of this will be done. The traffic volume is probably too low to meet the county's 1,000-vehicles criteria for attention.
Mr. Walter says Beechwood is on the county's list for a traffic study, but it hasn't been scheduled. Mr. Downer, however, has done his own study.
The county police department has a 2-year-old program it calls SMART, an acronym for Speed Monitoring Awareness Radar Teams, in which it loans hand-held radar to citizens who want to monitor speeding on their street.
Using a SMART radar and a stopwatch, which he says is more accurate, Mr. Downer clocked motorists driving near his house.
The posted limit is 25 mph. Out of 441 cars surveyed, only 44 (10 percent) were being driven within the speed limit. Eleven exceeded 40 mph, and two of those exceeded 45 mph.
I'll bet the results would be similar on many residential streets in Howard County. Some are experiencing increased traffic as motorists look for alternatives to roads that now have speed humps.
Mr. Downer believes the solution is more stop signs. But engineers are lukewarm to that idea.
They say speeders ignore stop signs. Perhaps the answer then is stringent enforcement.
The police manpower required may be expensive, but some drivers aren't going to slow down until they realize that a speeding ticket really is a possibility.
And, others won't slow down until they crash or hit someone crossing the street.
Harold Jackson is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 5/03/98