People are not roadside obstacles. Photo by Complete Streets on Flickr.

Quick quiz: According to the Maryland State Highway Administration, what is the purpose of guard rails on roads?

(1) to protect everybody

(2) to protect people in cars

The correct answer is (2).

I found this out recently when I asked the SHA for a guard rail after two people drove their cars into our side yard. The yard is on the top, flat side of a T intersection with a 3-way stop. The house has been there since 1911; the T intersection, since 1926.

One April night in 2010, a driver on the stem of the intersection drove past the stop sign and right on into our yard, banging into a pine tree and running over one of the two apple trees, until his car stopped with its headlights shining into a bedroom window. Luckily, nobody, including my family, was injured.

I figured that this incident was a fluke.

Almost exactly one year later, another driver on the stem of the intersection drove past the stop sign and right on into our yard, running over a pine tree and the second apple tree. Again, luckily, nobody was hurt, or so we assume, given that the driver was somehow able to back out of the yard and drive away before we got home.

With no more apple trees left, I was worried that the next car would hit a family member. So I asked for a guardrail.

After a thorough and professional site visit by a SHA engineer, I received an email from Cedric Ward, Assistant District Engineer - Traffic (Montgomery County) at SHA, which said,

According to [SHA’s] guidelines, a roadside barrier is warranted for only the most severe roadside obstacles…. Considering that none of the[se]...roadside obstacles are present at the subject location, a traffic barrier is not warranted at this location.

Looking at the 2006 Guidelines for Traffic Barrier Placement and End Treatment Design Ward referred me to, I learned that “the function of a roadside barrier is to shield the motorist from impacting an obstacle along the roadside.”

According to the SHA guidelines, a traffic barrier is warranted only if there is a roadside obstacle that cannot be removed or relocated out of the road’s clear zone, defined as “the total roadside area, starting at the edge of the travel lane, available for safe use by errant vehicles.”

Thus, the guidelines allow SHA to put up a traffic barrier to protect people in cars from driving into embankments, bridge parapets, non-breakaway signs or lights, signal supports, water bodies more than two feet deep, large boulders, utility poles, drainage ditches, and/or trees.

But they do not allow SHA, in general, to put up a traffic barrier to protect people who are not in cars from being driven into. People who are not in cars are not a roadside obstacle that motorists need shielding from. And indeed, at least judging from our experience, it is not dangerous for a person in a car to drive into a yard where people, not in cars, might be.

To be fair, the guidelines concede that, on urban streets, a traffic barrier may be placed “in sensitive areas such as school playgrounds.” So perhaps we might have qualified for a guard rail if the driver were likely to drive into our house, instead of just our yard.

As yet, the lack of a guard rail has not really been a big problem for us. Nobody was hurt, apple trees can be replaced, and we have installed some new, large landscaping on our property. And the SHA did put up a yellow sign with a black two-directional arrow at the intersection.

But the lack of a guard rail was a very big problem for Kelay Smith and Derrick R. “Mooky” Jones, who were killed by a driver in Prince George’s County in August 2008 while they were walking along a stretch of MD Route 4 without sidewalks or guard rails.

And it should be a very big problem for the State of Maryland, which was ordered by a civil jury in March to pay $3.3 million to Smith’s daughter and mother.

State traffic barrier guidelines notwithstanding, people in cars are not the only users of the road. What will it take to get the SHA to revise its guidelines to routinely take the safety of all road users into account? This is not a rhetorical question.