FOR PEOPLE ON FOOT, U.S. 40 IS HAZARDOUS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Casey Kim points to the spot where the body of a woman hit by a car on U.S. 40 landed by the mailbox just in front of his Rosedale store in August 2006.

Kim, owner of On Lok Liquors, said the victim, 38-year-old Melissa Dawn Sullivan of Baltimore, was one of four people killed in separate pedestrian crashes just outside his door since he took over the business six years ago. For more than five years, it has been the most dangerous spot on one of Maryland's most hazardous highways for people on foot.

"They got to do something," he said. "My question is how many more people will die."

From where U.S. 40 merges into Interstate 70 in western Howard County to the Susquehanna River - a stretch of about 52 miles - the highway has been the site of at least 29 pedestrian deaths since Jan. 1, 2003.

Baltimore city accounts for at least eight of the fatalities, all but two in West Baltimore. The city is working to make changes at two identified "hot spots" for pedestrians: at Franklin Street and Warwick Avenue, and Edmondson Avenue and Longwood Street.

More than twice as many, 21, have occurred on state-maintained stretches of the highway in Howard, Baltimore and Harford counties. At three spots - Ellicott City, Rosedale and Aberdeen - are clusters where three or four deaths occurred within a few hundred feet of one another.

Dave Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration, called U.S. 40 "a challenge." He noted that it was built a long time ago, when pedestrian safety was a much lower priority,

"Forty, fifty years ago, that was an afterthought," he said.

U.S. 40 is classified as a principal arterial highway - a category of road that was identified in a recent report as especially hazardous for pedestrians. These are the heavily used, generally four-lane or more highways where pedestrian traffic is not separated from vehicular traffic as it is on interstates. They are typically roads that preceded the interstate system and evolved in an era where the car was king.

The report earlier this month by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Project identified highway design as one of the main culprits in pedestrian fatalities. Entitled "Dangerous by Design," the study said an analysis of federal data showed that more than half of the 9,091 pedestrians killed on U.S. highways in 2007-2008 died on principal or minor arterial roads.

According to the report, such roads are especially dangerous when they run through urban areas - accounting for 56 percent of pedestrian deaths.

"These roads, typically designed with four or more lanes and high travel speeds, have been shown to encourage distracted driving habits," the report says. "The pressure to move as many cars through these areas as quickly as possible has led transportation departments to squeeze in as many lanes as they can, while designing out crosswalks and crossing signals, on-street parking and street trees in order to remove impediments to speeding traffic."

In the Baltimore region, arterial roads with multiple pedestrian fatalities include U.S. 1, Ritchie Highway, Liberty and Reisterstown roads and Anne Arundel County's Mountain Road. But none appears to have the number of deaths or as many clusters of fatalities as U.S. 40.

As with many arterial roads, some of the most dangerous stretches of U.S. 40 lie outside the city, where pedestrian facilities are scattered and disconnected. In Baltimore city, sidewalks line U.S. 40 in all but a few places. But when the road crosses the county line and becomes the responsibility of the SHA, few sidewalks are to be found. Outside the city the distance between legal crossings increases and the temptation to dash across the highway between signals increases.

"It's the fact that everything is so spread out that it's hard to know where pedestrians are really going to want to cross the roadway," said Andrew E. Ramisch, a consulting engineer with the Product and Highway Safety Institute in Montgomery Village.

The site outside Kim's liquor store on the corner of U.S. 40 and Lorraine Avenue exemplifies many of the worst characteristics of arterials.

At that point, U.S. 40 is a broad, fast, hilly highway with no sidewalks, crosswalks or pedestrian crossing signals. Across from the liquor store are a couple of motels and the Crazy Russian night club. Two breaks in the Jersey wall permit pedestrians to dash across four lanes of traffic and multiple turn lanes. The contours of the land and placement of the barriers create blind spots in either direction. The nearest legal crossing, where the state recently installed a pedestrian countdown signal, is several football fields away down a steep hill at Chesaco Avenue.

Ramisch said "it's not human nature at all" to walk that far and come back the same distance to get across a road. "People have a tendency to want to get from Point A to Point B in a straight line," he said.

But crossing near Kim's store is a daunting proposition. Even on a rainy evening with the roads slick, drivers zoom through the 50-mph zone at an average speed Kim conservatively estimates at 65 mph. He said he crossed U.S. 40 once in his six years of doing business there and will never do so again.

Buck said he and state highway engineers visited the site multiple times in the days after The Baltimore Sun asked about the death toll there. He said the agency recently installed fluorescent yellow signs warning drivers to look out for pedestrians in that stretch but had not yet found a sufficient volume of foot traffic to justify taking further measures. He said engineers were still weighing possible actions.

"We're not ignoring it," he said.

When the subject of pedestrian safety is raised, highway officials often point to the problem of drunkenness.

"I do know we have had pedestrian fatalities along U.S. 40 involving intoxicated pedestrians and/or intoxicated motorists. There is little any engineering improvements can do to offset drinking and driving and drinking and walking into the road," Buck wrote in an e-mail.

But a review of federal data on U.S. 40 fatalities showed that alcohol was involved in only a small percentage of the deaths.

According to Buck, three of the four deaths outside Kim's store were found to be the result of driver error. The other occurred as a pedestrian attempted to climb a Jersey wall in the median. Despite the proximity of taverns and liquor stores, none of the accidents was found to have involved alcohol use on the part of driver or pedestrian.

Ramisch said that in most cases the biggest pedestrian problem is the pedestrians themselves. He estimates that in 40 percent of the fatalities he's examined, pedestrian error is the cut-and-dried explanation. In other cases, he said, pedestrian error is compounded by a driver's speeding.

But Ramisch also estimates that in 40 percent of pedestrian deaths, the highway's design is a contributing factor.

Greg Cantori, president of One Less Car, said hazards found on roads such as U.S. 40 include a dearth of sidewalks, no crosswalks at interchanges and guardrail installed so close to the curb that pedestrians are forced to walk in travel lanes.

Among the solutions he suggests are walkways inside guardrails and narrower travel lanes to slow down traffic in areas of pedestrian vulnerability. In areas of low pedestrian volume but heightened danger, he suggests stoplights that would remain green except when a pedestrian pushes a button to request a stop.

Cantori, whose group advocates for the interests of bicyclists and pedestrians, said Maryland highway officials have been moving "slowly, very slowly" beyond the auto-centric ways of previous decades.

"It's a huge paradigm shift," he said. "Rather than look at pedestrians as an inconvenience to drivers, their health and safety is a priority because they're the most vulnerable road users."

Buck said that under Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, the highway agency has been incorporating pedestrian-friendly features into new roads.

In the case of U.S. 40, Buck said, that includes improvements to intersections at Winters Lane and North Rolling Road in Catonsville, a rebuilt west-side Interstate 695 interchange that includes sidewalks, two streetscape projects with pedestrian improvements in Harford County and $522,000 in sidewalk and pedestrian signal projects between Patapsco Valley State Park and Centennial Lane in Howard County.

But the spokesman said retrofitting about 16,000 lane-miles of state roads will be a daunting task.

"There's always going to be more to be done and more dollars needed," Buck said.

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