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Seeking a safer Liberty Road


Maryland and Baltimore County officials are considering enforcement, education and engineering solutions - from lowering the speed limit to distributing informational pamphlets - in response to recent traffic accidents along Liberty Road near Interstate 695.

"We're asking, 'What can we do out there to help the situation?'" said Parker F. Williams, head of the State Highway Administration. He said the state has been asked to review requests to install pedestrian crosswalk signals and to consider lowering the speed limit. "We're also looking at whether we could direct some grant funds to working with pedestrian safety on that corridor."

In the past 10 days, five people have been seriously injured in crashes on the road, among them a 10-year-old girl who was hit by a car as she tried to cross Liberty Road on Sept. 19. Four people were injured in a seven-car pileup Wednesday on Liberty Road. Three people have been killed on the road since mid-July.

Last night, about 30 mourners and activists marched down Liberty Road, carrying a black wooden casket and signs to draw attention to the accidents. They chanted, "Slow it down, keep it safe."

"We need people to be aware of how serious this is," said County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who attended the rally.

In most accidents, speed has been a factor, but officials are reviewing data to determine what has caused the recent increase in the number of accidents along a 2-mile stretch of Liberty Road from the Beltway west to Old Court Road.

"Any time there's a fatal accident, we look at the road to see if there's anything that can be done to improve the road through engineering," said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration. "But when someone's going 100 mph, there's not a lot we can do."

Most speeding motorists on Liberty Road exceed the limit by a small margin. State engineers studied the speed of vehicles along the four-lane highway and found that most drivers are traveling about 5 mph over the 40-mph limit.

County police have increased patrols during the day and at night to enforce the limit. Police have written about 300 traffic citations in the past three weeks, Ruppersberger said. And yesterday, the state put up a radar sign that shows motorists the speeds at which they're traveling, hoping this information will encourage them to slow down.

Speed strips, which create a vibration and a small bump, could be installed to slow traffic, but Edgar said they wear down quickly and commuters using the road get used to them and ignore the intended warning.

State officials and independent experts said rallies and marches that increase public awareness and educate drivers, such as last night's forum sponsored by Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., are helpful.

Burns, who is running for re-election in November, and county Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan met last month to discuss safety proposals aimed at improving Liberty Road's accident record, including the possible use of speed-enforcement cameras, which are similar to the red-light cameras used in the region. Last year, the Liberty Road-Washington Avenue intersection had the highest number of red-light violations in the county - 3,861.

The speed-enforcement cameras are able to gauge the speed and take a photo of a vehicle exceeding the limit.

But "you'd want to analyze the crashes and their causes before taking specific action," said Diane Steed, former Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"For example," she said, "if speeding was a problem and a cause of the crashes, you could concentrate radar enforcement or use some sort of traffic calming solution like speed bumps or a roundabout. If alcohol were a factor, special drunken-driving checkpoints could be held on those roads. Other types of concentrated traffic enforcement could be targeted for those roads."

No decision has been made on installing cameras. Accident and speed data from state highways last year and this year have not been compiled. But Edgar said data from 1999 and 2000 showed that Liberty Road's accident rate was higher than that on other similar four-lane state highways.

The recent spike in serious accidents began July 22, when a Randallstown man riding a motor scooter was hit and killed by a car that police said was traveling in excess of 70 mph. On July 31, a Baltimore woman in a sport utility vehicle was killed in what police believe was a speed-related accident. And on Sept. 8, a Catonsville man was killed in a three-vehicle accident that injured four motorists. The cause of that accident is under investigation.

The state recently completed a $3.4 million streetscape project, which included installing flashing yellow lights and building a pedestrian safety island on Liberty Road near Marriott Lane.

Next month, construction will begin on a $4.5 million project to widen the ramp from the Beltway and expand an existing road to stop motorists from turning around near Washington Avenue, where many of the accidents and close calls have occurred.

"This was all under way before these horrific accidents," Edgar said.

State transportation officials had hoped the streetscape, which also included planting trees, would encourage people to slow down, she said. "We hoped when they saw trees and island that they'd realize they're passing through a residential area."

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