The Deadliest Stretch

The Deadliest Stretch

James Levin/The Diamondback

Published on October 14, 2014

Between January and July, three pedestrians have died while crossing near the intersection of Knox Road and Route 1.

State, county and university officials worked in collaboration over the summer, most notably lowering the speed limit along the College Park corridor of Route 1 to 25 mph and constructing a fence in the median across from three local bars.

Note: This story has been republished via a partnership with The Washington Post. The original article was published May 9, 2014.

The accidents shed light on pedestrian safety issues on College Park’s main street.

University, city officials call for action

Flowers lie at the intersection of Knox Road and Route 1 to commemorate the George Washington University student killed last spring. (James Levin/The Diamondback)

Swarms of students migrate to Route 1 each weekend looking to get into their preferred bars for a night out with friends. They wait in lines that curve around the block or spill onto the street.

This same section of road sees traffic of about 30,000 cars each day, according to the Annual Average Daily Traffic report from the State Highway Administration. And in the last 11 months, five pedestrians have been struck — two fatally — at the intersection of Route 1 and Knox Road.

“When people say this is the second-most dangerous stretch of highway in the entire state, it really hit home,” said university President Wallace Loh. “I will emphasize one doesn’t really know how dangerous it is until you go there on the weekend night at 1 a.m.”

Saturday night, Loh, with University Police Chief David Mitchell, walked around this section of Route 1 from about 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. Sunday. Loh said this helped him see that area’s safety issues in a new light.

To address these concerns, the College Park City Council sent a letter to the SHA on April 15 requesting safety improvements, and Loh and College Park Mayor Andy Fellows sent a similar letter to the agency April 23. Mitchell said he has talked to SHA about this topic but has not been pleased with the lack of action on their part.

“We’re all united on this, what needs to be done,” Mitchell said. “And we’ve spoken loudly with one voice, and the lack of response has been deafening. More than just words, we need action, and we need it now.”

Some of the safety suggestions from the Student Government Association and university and city officials include lowering the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph, instituting a four-way red flashing light during weekend nights, using automatic walk signals, extending the speed cameras’ hours of operation and putting a traffic light at the intersection of Hartwick Road and Route 1.

“My major conclusion was: I am surprised more people have not been hit.”

— Wallace Loh, university president

“Even though we want to be making all of these decisions right now and we want to see instant progress, everything has to go through SHA, and for the most part they’ve been not unresponsive, but they seem almost indifferent to what we’ve been asking for,” said SGA Vice President of Student Affairs Catherine McGrath. “They really don’t see the urgency of it.”

But SHA media relations manager David Buck said pedestrian safety is a top concern, and officials from SHA will meet with the Maryland Department of Transportation, university officials, including Loh, and local officials, including, Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s), Fellows and Prince George’s County Councilman Eric Olson today to discuss this issue further.

Mitchell said he met with university officials, Prince George’s County officials, city officials, city engineers and SHA engineers May 2, hours before the third pedestrian this month was hit.

At the meeting, Mitchell said, he asked SHA to put a temporary barrier in the median. SHA said they would get back to him by Monday, Mitchell said, but he has yet to receive a response.

“I hope I’ll see a greater sense of urgency than I’ve seen so far,” Mitchell said. “It’s very disappointing that what could be a priority seems to not be a priority.”

But SHA Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Dustin Kuzan said the agency is working to find the most effective and efficient measures to improve pedestrian safety. The agency is unsure if barriers in the median are the answer.

“There’s not a whole lot of science behind pedestrian safety,” Kuzan said. “If you put in a median barrier … there is not much research out there on how effective they would be.”

About 2,700 people have signed a petition since April 17, asking the city to build sidewalk barriers outside of Cornerstone and R.J. Bentley’s. Loh said he would be in favor of this as a temporary solution.

“The other thing that just stunned me is how narrow sidewalks are,” Loh said. “There are actually people standing not on the sidewalk but on the road, and cars are zipping by. My major conclusion was: I am surprised more people have not been hit.”

R.J. Bentley’s combats this issue with a security rope keeping the line close to the side of the building.

“We’re always concerned with student safety, and we would like to figure out how we can stop the problem,” said R.J. Bentley’s general manager Pat Ahern.

Buck said pedestrians at the bars on Route 1 are usually intoxicated by the time they are walking, and jaywalking, home. He said this safety issue would remain regardless of engineering improvements.

“We have a very small piece of this from a highway perspective, [but] an important one as people come across Route 1,” Buck said. “But if pedestrians are going to continue going across the street on Route 1, drink until 2:30 in the morning and then walk back across the road in the middle of the block drunk, again that has to change. The theme here has to change.”

Mitchell said changing pedestrian behavior will take time. He is instead focusing on immediate changes such as increasing police presence. Prince George’s County Police and university police have been working overtime, monitoring this dangerous stretch of highway, Mitchell said.

“Let’s face it: Many of the pedestrians have been consuming alcoholic beverages, and that’s fine,” Mitchell said. “You’re going to find that in every major city and every state in the country. We need to recognize that people come out, they enjoy dinner, they may have a few drinks and they expect to be safe.”

Although McGrath recognized the reckless behavior of some pedestrians, she said SHA should prioritize making engineering changes to this section of Route 1.

“There have been so many pedestrian incidents and fatalities just this semester that this is really something that is unusual,” McGrath said. “There is clearly a significant problem that is not only the way pedestrians are crossing, but clearly something with the highway itself.”

Police amp up Route 1 presence

(Sung-Min Kim/The Diamondback)

In an effort to encourage pedestrian safety after a string of injuries and deaths caused by pedestrian collisions at the intersection of Route 1 and Knox Road, University Police have become more active in handing out warnings and citations to those who cross the highway outside of crosswalks or when they’re not supposed to.

“We prefer to use warnings and education at this point,” University Police Chief David Mitchell said, adding that police have issued hundreds of warnings to jaywalkers. “It’s certainly less confrontational, and we hope it has the intended result.”

Sophomore communication major Maddie Kempton jaywalked across Route 1 after coming back from CVS Pharmacy one afternoon. Kempton said she walked to one of the dividers after checking to make sure there were no cars. Then an officer called her over to talk to her. The officer gave her a warning but no ticket, she said.

“I was paying attention to my surroundings, and it didn’t make any sense to me,” she said, adding that the warning will not discourage her from jaywalking in the future. “I’m not going to walk in the middle of the street when a car is two feet away from me.”

University President Wallace Loh visited Route 1 with Mitchell on Saturday to talk to students about pedestrian safety. Through the course of the night — Loh stayed from 11 p.m. to about 2 a.m. Sunday — he said he watched student after student jaywalk in front of him.

“I am now absolutely convinced no amount of education is going to stop this,” Loh said. “It’s like they see the officers, they don’t mind the officers, they just jaywalk. And this goes on and on all night.”

“You can’t stop drunk kids on a Saturday night from doing what they want.”

— Connor Hepler, senior economics major

The threats of fines have not stopped Zach Goldman, a freshman enrolled in letters and sciences. Goldman said police fined his friend about $25 or $30 one night after the same officer had already given the same friend a warning for jaywalking.

“Most of the time, I’m doing it safely,” he said. “Plus the crosswalks are so far away it can be pretty annoying, and I’m not going to walk that far.”

Dimitri Chagares said a friend of his was charged between $20 and $40 for jaywalking after the friend followed another drunken friend who had rushed across the highway.

“I understand [the fines] when it’s late at night and people are hammered,” the junior finance major said. “But when it’s the day and people are sober and aware, it’s not a big deal.”

Margaret Kahwaty, a senior hearing and speech sciences major, said she supports the police’s actions. She said she saw police hand out citations last week by Cornerstone.

“There have been a couple of fatalities, so I think it’s an important step they can take,” she said. “I can see why they’re doing it.”

Dustin Kuzan, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Maryland State Highway Administration, observed Route 1 in the fall while performing a safety audit. He said pedestrians along this stretch of highway were among the worst he’d come across.

“The patrons at Cornerstone and the other bar there just walk right out into the roadway, not even looking at traffic,” Kuzan said. “In my experience in looking at other locations in the state, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen pedestrians that don’t even acknowledge the signal at all.”

Connor Hepler worked at Terrapin’s Turf last week  and said he saw “a lot of cops talking to students” and giving out slips of papers, which he thought were citations. He said he understood the purpose of the fines but doubted how successful they would be.

“You can’t stop drunk kids on a Saturday night from doing what they want,” the senior economics major said.

Slowing down College Park's main street

(James Levin/The Diamondback)

A semester removed from the rise in pedestrian safety concerns along parts of Route 1 near this university, campus and local officials have continued advocating for changes to make that stretch safer.

The university continued to work with the State Highway Administration during the summer to apply a number of road changes during the beginning of the semester to protect Route 1’s pedestrians and drivers. By Sept. 1, officials lowered the speed limit from 30 to 25 mph and updated the nearby lights, traffic signals, signs and crosswalks. On Thursday, the SHA added a pedestrian signal at Hartwick Road and Route 1.

The lack of safety measures during the year prior might have contributed to five separate incidents in which a vehicle struck a pedestrian at the main-road intersection. The university has since taken steps to decrease risk.

The most recent incident occurred July 6, when a driver with a BAC level twice the legal limit struck and killed Janelle Oni, 21, near the 7300 block of Route 1.

“Our plan is ‘100 percent, zero,’” university President Wallace Loh said in a video released in May. “One-hundred percent responsibility. Everyone has to be responsible. The students, the drivers, the pedestrians, the university … We are all responsible for our safety. And our goal is zero accidents.”

The state’s push for increased safety measures along Route 1 intensified after two people died at Knox Road and Route 1 last semester. At the same intersection, vehicles struck three other individuals — all in an 11-month period.

The first incident in this string occurred July 12, 2013, when a 54-year-old man crossing the street was struck.

About six months later, on Jan. 17, senior kinesiology major Cory Hubbard died after being struck by a car in a hit-and-run accident at the intersection.

On April 11, a car struck and killed George Washington University senior Carlos Pacanins while he was crossing Route 1.

Radar signs have been posted along Route 1 to help control the speed of traffic along the roadway. (Rachel George/The Diamondback)

Despite safety initiatives such as the additional flashing signs and letter sent to the SHA pushing for changes, another car struck a non-university male pedestrian in the same place the following week on April 19. He suffered non-life-threatening injuries.

The two incidents in April sparked an additional push for safety analysis in the city. The College Park City Council increased police patrols near the intersection, city officials reevaluated speed cameras in the area and Loh sent an email to the university community to educate students about possible road danger.

But on May 3, a car hit a non-university male, who suffered minor injuries. This marked the third pedestrian collision in one month’s time.

Along with lowering the speed limit, seven of the eight existing speed cameras began operating 24/7, and the council installed three new cameras within a half a mile of the university.

And after a student petition that urged the city to build sidewalk barriers near Cornerstone and R.J. Bentley’s gained more than 2,700 signatures, the SHA also helped install a fence on the median between Knox Road and Hartwick Road to help deter illegal crossing.

On Sept. 1, the SHA sponsored the Walk Smart College Park campaign to educate students about pedestrian safety with signs and brochures. University Police also stationed more cops at the intersection and issued fines for jaywalking to prevent illegal activity.

“We urge everyone, and especially our students to remain vigilant. Be alert. Be smart. Be safe,” Loh said in the video.

To contact the authors please email newsumdbk@gmail.com

 

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