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Offering a passing thought on school buses

IAIN McINTOSH weighed in on last week's column, in which I recommended that bus drivers who wave cars around them stop this practice because it might add to an attitude of entitlement.

"I would contend that precisely the opposite is the case. If school bus drivers were compelled to pull over and allow the rest of us to pass, there would be less incentive to break the law by passing when they stop to load/unload," he said.

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"I believe it is the law in California (and possibly elsewhere) that slow-moving vehicles MUST pull over and allow built up traffic to pass, once the queue has reached five vehicles. A similar regulation here might prevent the build up of frustration that leads to the events you comment upon in your column."

You make an interesting point. I'll back your proposal to make it mandatory for school buses to pull over to allow cars to pass. State senators, here's your cue.

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Mr. McIntosh also commented on another frustration he has with school buses. "It would also help if children were capable of walking a few hundred yards to a bus stop, rather than require the buses to stop at every driveway," he said. "Route 103 serves as excellent example."

I sympathize: I've been stuck behind a bus stopping at every driveway, too. There's nothing more annoying. But the major flaw in your suggestion is exactly the conditions that exist on Route 103, which lacks sidewalks and crosswalks on most stretches. The road is clearly too dangerous for children (or adults) to walk along to a bus stop -- or anywhere else for that matter.

In fact, life is generally difficult for pedestrians. Many roads in Howard County lack sidewalks. Or, if they have sidewalks, there are no crosswalks. J.T. Merryman noted that such is the situation along Centennial Lane in Ellicott City.

"Why is it that Centennial Lane has no crosswalks along its entire length?" he asked, noting that other state-maintained roads, such as Route 108, Route 144 and U.S. 40, have higher speed limits and more traffic -- and crosswalks.

"Why does the state install crosswalks on its roads yet the county seems to think it's not safe enough for a crosswalk on a road where the speed limit is a mere 35 miles per hour?" he wondered.

"Doesn't a crosswalk make it safer for pedestrians?" Mr. Merryman asked.

Well, yes and no.

Mark DeLuca, acting chief of Traffic Engineering Division for the Howard County Department of Public Works, said that Centennial is problematic for crosswalks in general.

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"To install a crosswalk, the prevailing speed of the road and the 'geometry' of the road are taken into consideration to determine whether having a crosswalk is safe, as well as determining whether there is enough pedestrian traffic, which near the schools on Centennial, there clearly is," he said.

But safety is a concern because "even in locations where warranted, the prevailing speed and stopping sight distance for vehicles might make installing a crosswalk unfeasible from a safety perspective" in that a crosswalk implies, by its existence, that it is safe for pedestrians to cross there.

This is the case for Centennial Lane, DeLuca said. "The problem is, there's no good place to cross."

In situations like these, schools can have crossing guards, even if there is no marked crosswalk. With a crossing guard and school lights flashing to indicate that vehicles should slow down, adequate safety is ensured to allow students to cross the road.

However, to install crosswalks that basically encourage pedestrians to cross at any time could be extremely dangerous, because the other safety conditions do not apply. The school board, in creating student walking routes (and in determining whether students should walk at all), works closely with the county to decide whether safety concerns are addressed, according to Mr. DeLuca.

What are crosswalks without sidewalks? Many roads in Howard, both state- or county-maintained, lack sidewalks. So I wondered what the county policy is on installing crosswalks where they do not exist. The bad news is that it is extremely difficult to get new sidewalks installed.

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According to JoAnn Maxfield of the Howard County Department of Public Works, there is a county capital project for routine sidewalk extensions less than 1,000 feet.

"There is a sidewalk policy that establishes nine criteria," she said. "Four of these must be met, and then there is a community vote."

Right of way is also an issue, she noted.

"The whole process is very controversial. People either love or hate sidewalks. We have a list of where sidewalks have been requested but no money in the capital project. Other ways to get [a] sidewalk would be to have the community request the project be added to the capital budget and the council must fund the sidewalk. This is needed if project is greater than 1,000 feet in length," she said.

What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at elison@us.net, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 30 Corporate Center, 10440 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 820, Columbia, 21044.


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