A motorist killed my 95-year-old godmother while she was crossing the street near her Bethesda home last week. A recent traffic signal replacement makes people walk into a lane of traffic with a posted speed limit of 45 mph to get to the crosswalk she regularly used.

Map’s base image from Google Maps, with labels by Ben Ross.

Marge Wydro frequently walked across River Road at its intersection with Springfield Drive, the residential two lane street where she lived.  Here, River widens from a four lane divided highway into seven lanes.  Her trip from her front door to the bowling alley at the Kenwood Country Club was about 300 feet.

In the past, Marge could walk (in the street) from her house on the first block of Springfield Drive to the corner with River Road. There, a curb ramp and sidewalk let her walk to the beg button (a button that must be pushed to get a walk signal) and the crosswalk across River.

River Road has sidewalks at the northern edge of the Westbard area, but they end about a quarter mile southeast of Marge’s house. Farther out on River, the only sidewalks to be found are short connections between side streets and bus stops, like the ones at Springfield Drive.

But at the southeast corner of River and Springfield, the curb ramp and a piece of the sidewalk isn’t there anymore. They went out as part of a project to replace the the traffic signal. In its place is a concrete curb with loose soil behind it. Frail walkers or people in wheelchairs are left no choice but to enter a traffic lane to reach the beg button and crosswalk. In the winter, when snow gets dumped on the corner, everyone’s in that boat.

The sidewalk before and after reconstruction. The top image is from Google Streetview; the bottom image is by the author.

On the other side, after people have crossed seven lanes of River Road, they’re met with more loose soil, weeds, a fire hydrant and utility poles.  Here, a section of sidewalk skirts the crosswalk and the obstacles to connect the driveway entrance of the Kenwood Country Club to the bus stop a few feet southeast of the corner.

The Kenwood Country Club side of River Road. Image by the author.

Compounding the lack of safe access to the crosswalk and the fact that the crosswalk exposes pedestrians to seven lanes of traffic is the fragmented nature of the sidewalks on the side streets. The one short block of Springfield adjacent to River where my godmother lived is the street’s only block without a sidewalk. On the other side of River Road, pedestrians like my godmother must share the driveway with cars to enter the country club.  There’s no direct paved connection from the sidewalk serving the bus stop to the closest country club building.

Marge Wydro. Photo by Bill Wydro.

The intersection poses an additional hazard to anyone not already familiar with it: the beg buttons are nearly impossible to see. On both sides of River Road, the buttons face south toward bus stops farther down the highway. With the new traffic signals, engineers have turned the buttons around to face the side streets.  Now it’s the bus rider’s turn to miss the message that the traffic signals require a pedestrian to ask for permission to use the crosswalk.

We don’t yet know the details of how Marge Wydro died, and it’s possible we never will.  But the engineering of this intersection subjected her to an entirely unnecessary safety hazard, which remains for anyone else who tries to cross here.

Tomorrow morning, County Councilmember Roger Berliner will join community members at the crash site to call for a redesign of this section of River Road.