Residents in Silver Spring have petitioned for a sidewalk on Good Hope Road for three decades. Image by Sebastian Smoot used with permission.

Devika Gunasekere, age 67, was killed on January 5, 2016. The Rockville resident was on her way to work at a child development center on a clear, sunny morning in Bethesda. She was crossing Old Georgetown Road at Battery Lane, within the pedestrian crosswalk. A Ride-On bus turning left killed her.

Deaths like Ms. Gunasekere’s are not inevitable, and local governments need to take seriously their responsibility to make roads safe. 

Vision Zero, a policy cities across the nation are adopting to use data to eliminate all traffic deaths, won the unanimous endorsement of the Montgomery County Council in late 2015. The county council is set to issue its detailed Vision Zero plan in February. It can’t come soon enough. 

While we don’t yet have final statistics for 2016, traffic fatalities rose 17.3 percent in Maryland in 2015, and 2016 is not looking much safer for those who bike, walk, and drive in the county, let alone in the state of Maryland.

(One thing that's certainly worth noting: Old Georgetown Road, where Ms. Gunasekere died, is a state-owned road. But that doesn't mean the county can't exercise its influence. In this case, for example, the county controls Ride-On buses. The bus that killed her was turning left, which is something some jurisdictions and companies, like UPS, have barred vehicles from doing. It's more dangerous than you might think.)

In a sprawling, diverse county like Montgomery, Vision Zero has a long, steep and winding road to climb.

This sign went up on Sligo Creek Parkway, by the Washington Adventist Hospital, because so many cars ignore the traffic lights. Image by John Jamele used with permission.

Speed kills

The correlation between lower speeds and lower fatalities is clear.  But Maryland state law prohibits the county council from lowering speed limits below 25 miles per hour even on residential streets. Yes, you read that correctly. So when a speeding car on Greentree Road crashed through a fence surrounding Christina Hartman’s front yard, she was told, accurately, that the speed limit could not be reduced below 25 miles per hour.

Instead, police advised her to install boulders around her yard to replace the white picket fence.

After a speeding car crashed through a fence and landed in their front yard, where their daughter often plays, police told the homeowners here to install boulders around their yard.  Image by Christina Hartman used with permission.

Fortunately, the Montgomery County council is no longer taking this lying down. Recently, councilmembers Hans Riemer, Marc Korman, and Delegate David Moon submitted a package of bills to Annapolis. The bills would allow the county to lower default speed limits on county roads from 30 to 20 mph; to lower speed limits on urban roads to 15 mph, and to eliminate the need for traffic studies near schools to lower the speed limit. Councilmember Riemer summarizes the bills on his blog here.

These bills represent an enormous leap beyond the slow, intersection by intersection, street by street approach that is required now, even when trying to improve safety near a school. Middlebrook Road, which is the county-controlled road next to Seneca Valley High School, has been waiting to go on a “road diet” for over a year.

More lights save lives

The county also controls lighting, even on state roads. In mid-December, a car hit and killed Esther Contreras, 63, near the Twinbrook Metro station. That intersection is known as a dark, dangerous crossing.  Better lighting might have saved her life. Ideally, when a light is broken, this information would be transmitted automatically to the responsible authorities so the light could be quickly repaired. Right now, repairs rely on a patchwork of inspections and civilian phone calls to 311.

A signal was out on River Road where Marge Wydro was killed in October 2015, sparking a “Day of Action,” attended by Councilmember Roger Berliner and others, to call for safer roads.

Ironically, a redesign of the intersection where Ms. Wydro died gave her few options but to to walk in the street, with a posted speed limit of 45 mph.

We need not just better lighting, but more advanced lighting.  A HAWK signal is a High-intensity Activated CrossWalK, also called a pedestrian hybrid beacon. It’s designed to help pedestrians cross busy streets. A HAWK signal stops motorized traffic with a red light, allowing pedestrians to cross.

Believe it or not, Maryland’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices may actually prohibit these signals entirely, at least according to a letter from the State Highway Administration. In early November, Berliner asked for legislative action to make HAWK signals legal in Maryland.

Data is difficult to access, making it hard to keep eyes on the most dangerous roads

Vision Zero is based on, and driven by, data.  The data is found in police reports, hospital statistics, county and state databases. Today it is relatively difficult for the public to access Montgomery County crash data, let alone to analyze it or to report “near misses.” (People usually do not notify the police of a near miss, so there is no police report.)

An article published at the end of December states that much traffic safety data in Maryland is deliberately kept secret from the public.

And the data that is available is often rough: number killed, injured, types of vehicles, time of day. One of the few places the public can access up-to-date information is a website run by a personal injury attorney.

By contrast, much of DC’s data is open, at OpenData. Moving violations are compiled under “transportation,” and the list is updated every three months.

“It’s very important that that data be as public as possible,” says Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association. “As keepers of the data, [Montgomery County] can look at it and draw certain conclusions. The public might draw different conclusions,” he adds.

If Montgomery County did something similar to DC, then experts—including medical and scientific experts who abound in Montgomery County--could splice the information more finely, to understand what causes these crashes and how to prevent them.

WABA invites public input on its home page, via a “crash tracker” report. The next step is to make the data “live,” says Billing, straight from crash reports and moving violation tickets.

Thirteen people died were hit on Montgomery County roads in the first few days of 2016. Why? Right now, your guess is as good as mine.

Ike Leggett, Montgomery County’s county executive, began his term in 2006 with a pedestrian-safety initiative, involving education, enforcement and engineering. He has announced that this will be his last term. How fitting it would be for him to exit his office with a Vision Zero plan that builds on his original vision.

Correction: the original version of this article said that 13 people died on Montgomery County roads in the first few days of 2016. That's incorrect. 13 people were hit by drivers on Montgomery County roads in the first few days of 2016.