Just weeks ago, a driver hit and injured four high school students who were waiting for their school bus to arrive on Georgia Avenue. This tragedy followed three other pedestrians deaths on Georgia Avenue this year. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.
From 2012 to 2016, there were 201 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and serious injuries in Montgomery County on Maryland state highways, comprising a little under a half of all fatal/serious pedestrian and bicyclist incidents in the county. The rate of crashes is highest in our lower-income and higher-minority areas.
Addressing this problem requires collaboration between the county and the state government. The county does not own or control state highways like Georgia Avenue, which handles the majority of the county's traffic volume.
Why are Georgia Avenue and other high-volume state highways such dangerous places for motorists and pedestrians alike? The primary reason is that these roads send all the wrong signals. They are designed for vehicles to move as quickly as possible over long distances to support a conventional suburban commuting pattern—but often at the expense of safety.
Many suburban communities in Montgomery County have become as urban as sections of any large city, complete with Metro stations, shopping centers, libraries, schools, and high rises. While the environment has become more urban and more developed, the road design contradicts this reality—with unfortunate results.
Drivers racing up or down these roads do not respond well to the changes to speed limits, traffic patterns, and influxes of pedestrians and bicyclists in more densely-populated stretches. That's why the roads need to be redesigned and rebuilt for safety.
Unfortunately, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) does not control the design of a state highway. Instead, Georgia Avenue, like all numbered roads in the county (Routes 97, 586, 193, 650, 185, 355, 29, and others) is managed by Maryland’s State Highway Administration (SHA). That's why the County Council wrote to Governor Larry Hogan asking the SHA to make changes, including reducing the current 45 mph zone in the Aspen Hill area where the driver hit the high school students. (Hogan has not yet responded but we're meeting with a representative soon.)
Speed is the major factor in whether a pedestrian or cyclist will survive a collision. At 20 mph, a pedestrian or bicyclist has an 18% chance of being fatally or seriously wounded, at 30 mph a 50% chance, and at 40 mph a 77% chance.
As the County Council President and a member of the Montgomery County Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Traffic Safety Advisory Committee, I would like to see things change. We have to make safety the first priority and we need to place a stronger focus on collaboration between the County Council, MCDOT, and the State Highway Administration.
To get there, we need to use the safety data we have to efficiently and equitably target engineering solutions that lower speeds and promote safety in our most dangerous areas. That means road diets, safer crossings, pedestrian lead times at intersections, and more.
Some of the planning, visioning, and collaboration has already begun.
For example, Park and Planning is working on Master Plans for the Veirs Mill Corridor in Wheaton, a segment of Georgia Avenue in Montgomery Hills, as well as a segment of Georgia Avenue in Aspen Hill. Both plans integrate the county's Vision Zero principles, the goal to have zero traffic deaths by 2030, to create narrower streets with slower speeds. They've been developed in close collaboration with the surrounding area communities.
In fact, on November 3 the Planning Department hosted an “Aspen Hill Walk Audit,” where community members had the opportunity to walk along these roadways with County and SHA staff to observe problem areas and propose possible solutions.
Our residents are mobilizing for change. In addition to ongoing advocacy efforts in Bethesda and White Flint in Montgomery Hills, local residents have come together to #FixGeorgiaAvenue. Burtonsville residents are pushing to #Fix198. In Wheaton, Glenmont, and Aspen Hill, several community associations have banded together to achieve a goal of “No More Dead Pedestrians.” The Montgomery County Council of PTAs recently included pedestrian safety in its 2018-2019 advocacy priorities, and convened a county-wide committee to focus on safe routes to schools and bus stop safety.
The Council is listening. Thanks to an invitation initiated by Council Vice President Nancy Navarro, the County Council will be meeting with Greg Slater, director of SHA, to discuss our concerns on November 13.
The world has changed around these high-volume, high-incident highways, and it is time for Montgomery County to catch up.
This article has been corrected to reflect that there were 201 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and serious injuries in Montgomery County on Maryland state highways from 2012 to 2016.