The perils of Route 99

The Baltimore Sun

Glenn Colgrove awoke to the familiar thud of a car crash on Route 99 at the edge of his backyard. But unlike previous accidents there, he heard a driver screaming, "Help me."

He dreaded what he would find outside. He locked the doors to his house and began walking to the wreckage of the head-on collision. A few minutes later, as he spoke with a 911 dispatcher, he watched the driver of the other vehicle, 20-year-old Doug Dellinger, die.

The crash, which occurred about 2:30 a.m. Aug. 15, was not the first time smashed vehicles and injured people had ended up in Colgrove's tree-lined backyard. Colgrove and area residents are pressing state officials to do more to prevent accidents on this windy, quarter-mile stretch of Route 99, also known as Old Frederick Road, between Maplewood and Bracken drives in Ellicott City.

Earlier accidents and complaints from residents prompted the State Highway Administration to add warning signs and arrows through a curve near Bracken Drive, where a teenager died on her way to a high school dance.

The agency also has formed an eight-member roadway safety team to recommend further improvements. The team's report could be released later this year.

Route 99 "has far more traffic than it was ever designed to have," said Dave Buck, a spokesman for the SHA. "We obviously have a responsibility in terms of the engineering of the road, but you have to keep in mind - and this is in no way diminishing the tragedy out there - 93 percent of these accidents are driver error."

Since January 2003, at least 22 vehicle crashes have occurred in this short section of Route 99. Two people younger than 21 have died. Half the accidents have involved single vehicles and several have been caused by drunken drivers.

"One truck caught on fire," Colgrove, 45, said. "I could see the flames engulfing a tree from my window. I thought the truck was going to explode, so I didn't walk out there. Another one took out our tree. The driver was in a daze, stumbling around our backyard. He didn't know what happened. He's lucky to be alive. There was another. A pedestrian. Everybody thought she was dead, the way she was hit."

Area residents said they recognize that the state is not to blame for the accidents - even describing some of the drivers they have encountered as "drunker than a skunk" or exhibiting "sheer stupidity."

But something more has to be done because the screeches of tires, crunching of fenders and whirring of Med-Evac helicopters landing nearby "scares the heck out of you," said Stacey Allwein of Kings Arm Tavern Court.

"It's our neighbors going and dealing with these accidents," said Sandy Bieganski, Allwein's neighbor. "We're petrified."

The state's safety team is considering widening the edge lines along the road to make it appear narrower, and prompt drivers to slow down; adding school zone signs, some of them flashing; etching rumble strips along the side of the road, which alert drivers when they cross the white line; and installing a permanent radar speed counter.

Buck, however, said that one option not on the table was widening the road.

"To widen a road like that, you're talking about taking people's front yards," Buck said. "Doing some of these things at intersections, again, you're taking people's front yards."

Neighbors have suggested other changes. Lisa Punt of Raleigh Tavern Lane says she wants the traffic signal at Route 99 and Maplewood Drive to work at all hours, rather than flash at night, to slow down eastbound drivers.

Allwein says she wants some neighbors to trim their trees to increase visibility around the curve near Bracken Drive. Others want a roundabout installed at Raleigh Tavern Lane - but that would require the state to take private property.

Meanwhile, area residents have heard regular reminders of the most recent fatality on Route 99. For weeks, an orange fluorescent sign staked along the road asked drivers to honk in Dellinger's memory.

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