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Grooves are a nice touch, but 'Death Curve' should be straightened

September 30, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

There's an episode of The Simpsons where young Bart falls down an abandoned dry well and becomes trapped. It takes the entire show to free him, and at the end, the school maintenance man vows that he will take meaningful action to ensure that such a tragedy will never, ever happen again.

So he pounds a sign into the ground that says: &Danger; Well."

Perhaps this was all it took. There's never been another episode in which anyone else falls down the well.

And perhaps cutting a rumble strip down the middle of a tricky set of curves on Alternate U.S. 40 between Funkstown and Boonsboro will cure a startling number of deaths and car crashes on the half-mile stretch of highway.

According to a Herald-Mail report by Joshua Bowman, seven people have been killed on the "Death Curve" in the past five years alone. And as Sheriff Doug Mullendore alludes to, the carnage extends back well beyond the past five years.

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The state highway department is obviously aware of the problem and deserves credit for at least trying to do something. It's hoped that drivers drifting into the other lane will be jarred by the deep grooves and steer back into their own lane.

It's an interesting theory, but the fix still has a &Danger; Well" quality to it. You appreciate the effort, but it seems a bit lame.

A book I read as a kid on bicycling said there was one major benefit to riding on the shoulder facing oncoming traffic: "That way you can see the car that hits you."

In a straight road/wicked-double-curve/straight road scenario, it's most likely the speed and the resulting G forces that pull you into the wrong lane. Rumble strips will add buzzing affirmation that you are about to hit something, but if you're already into the curve at speed it's a bit late in the game for a sermon.

Seven deaths. In five years. And yet no one, to my knowledge, in any position of authority has suggested what should be obvious to the cows grazing in nearby fields. The road needs to be straightened.

The Death Curve is a grisly metaphor for a number of hitches in Washington County's giddyup.

First is the curious reluctance of the county officials or county residents to speak up over something that matters, something that is obviously in need of action.

We will debate a handful of foreigners living in Hagerstown or same-sex marriage ad nauseam, but put something meaningful up for discussion and there's nary a peep.

Of course, once something is moved forward for debate will come the chorus that it can't be done which, translated means, we don't want to do it.

Since the road buffets Antietam Creek, we will be told that its logistically impossible, which would get a grin from those who, armed with 1850s technology, were able to build the transcontinental railroad.

Next we will hear about costs. As rebuttal, I would turn your attention to the Eastern Panhandle where a high number of deaths on W.Va. 9 as inspired construction of an entire new, four-lane highway between Martinsburg and Charles Town, W.Va.

When this many lives are lost on such a small stretch of roadway, money becomes - or should become - largely irrelevant.

You would like to think that the state would, as a matter of course, address the problem on its own, but since that doesn't appear to be in the works, a nudge from our political representatives would certainly be appropriate.

Yet there's silence from this quarter as well.

A question: If this deadly half-mile were located in Montgomery or Prince George's or Ann Arundel or Baltimore counties, is there any doubt it would have been straightened out years ago? But we pay gasoline tax, too, you know.

We have a problem, and Annapolis needs to know we have a problem and that's why we elect leaders. Small wonder that Hagerstown wants to hire its own lobbyist strictly to deal with transportation-related issues. Somebody needs to be aggressive on this front.

Here is an argument for home rule. Lawmakers would be stripped of chores of dealing with minutia that ought to be the domain of Washington County Commissioners and would be forced to deal with big issues, such as this one, that matter. Yes, it would put them on the spot, and rightly so.

Finally is the messed-up priorities that exist not just here, but throughout all layers of government.

Eighteen months ago, the federal government blessed us with a $200,000 Lenco Bearcat anti-terrorism vehicle. It hasn't been heard from since. Who has this benefited, save for the people who manufacture the Lenco Bearcat?

How much more productive might this $200,000 have been had it gone toward an engineering study for a solution to Death Curve?

You can blame speed and driver error for this notorious accident tally and you would probably be correct. Those factors cause crashes every day of the year. But when so many are bunched in one small spot, that points to engineering failures as well and engineering failures can be fixed.

Or, you can do nothing other than put up a sign, &Danger; Curve," and simply shrug and clean up the mess next time two cars meet head-on, lamenting that it couldn't have been helped.

For the record, that's the way they do it in Bolivia.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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