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Eastern Boulevard safety improvements help, but fall short

August 08, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- The reduced speed limit and other changes made in June to improve safety on Eastern Boulevard near the YMCA entrance have slowed traffic slightly, but not as much as engineers had hoped, Washington County traffic engineer Merle Saville said.

Meanwhile, there have been three accidents, one of them fatal, on the stretch of road near the intersection in the past two months, fueling a nearby resident's requests for county officials to do more to address the situation.

"In my opinion, Band-Aids are not going to resolve this extremely dangerous stretch of roadway," Chimneystone Court resident Jeffrey Spickler wrote in an e-mail to Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth on July 26, the same day a driver was taken to the hospital after a collision with a car that was making a turn at the intersection.

Drivers say turning onto Eastern Boulevard from either the YMCA parking lot or Chartridge Drive, the residential street across from the YMCA entrance, is made treacherous by limited visibility and a steady stream of high-speed traffic. Eastern Boulevard makes a sharp bend just east of the intersection.

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In an unscientific Herald-Mail survey of 15 Chartridge Drive, Chimneystone Court, Overbrook Road and Carriage Hill Drive residents, all 15 said they thought further improvements were needed for safety at the intersection, and 14 of 15 said a traffic light was the only real solution.

"I think everyone back here feels there needs to be something more done," Carriage Hill Drive resident Harold Brandenburg said.

Taking steps

On June 16, four days after a fatal accident near the intersection, the county's highway department reduced the speed limit on Eastern Boulevard from 40 mph to 30 mph for about 600 feet on either side of the intersection and widened the lane edge lines, an effect that Kroboth said has been shown to cause drivers to slow down.

The highway department also installed a median on Chartridge Drive, which Kroboth said was designed to allow vehicles on that street to safety pull out further into the intersection before entering the stream of traffic on Eastern Boulevard.

In addition, the county put up a sign prohibiting left turns from Chartridge Drive onto Eastern Boulevard from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Those changes were recommended after a traffic study conducted in the spring by Washington County's engineering department showed the intersection did not match any of the eight scenarios that justify installation of a traffic light under the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Kroboth said.

Those scenarios include certain traffic volume levels, the need for pedestrian or school crossing, or frequent, severe crashes at an intersection with a certain traffic volume.

Justifying a light

To justify installing a traffic light based on crash history, an intersection must have a certain volume of traffic and a record of five or more reported crashes in a 12-month period that could have been prevented with a traffic light, the Federal Highway Administration manual says.

Even if those conditions are met, the manual says a traffic light shouldn't be considered until alternative solutions are tried, with sufficient observation and enforcement.

Maryland State Highway Administration data shows there was one crash per year at the intersection in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Spickler said he suspects that data is incomplete because he has witnessed or seen the aftermath of more accidents than that.

In the past two months, Spickler said, there were at least three crashes at the intersection, including a fatal crash June 12, a vehicle that jumped a curb and struck a street sign and utility pole July 17, and a two-vehicle crash at the intersection July 26 that sent one driver to the hospital.

Personnel at the Washington County Sheriff's Department and the Hagerstown Police Department said neither department had a record of the July 17 crash.

Area residents said the number of near-crashes should be taken as seriously as the number of actual crashes.

"Especially if it's a rainy kind of day, you just hear the screeching of the wheels," said Sally Irwin, whose Carriage Hill Drive home backs up to Eastern Boulevard. "We've called 911 several times because of it."

Even if there were five preventable crashes in a 12-month period, there is not enough traffic coming from Chartridge Drive or the YMCA parking lot to meet the volume component of the crash-based justification for a traffic signal, Saville said.

Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said the manual's criteria for justifying traffic signals are meant as a guide for state and local governments, but are not necessarily requirements.

Kroboth said, however, that both state law and county ordinances require one of the scenarios in the manual to be met before a traffic light can be installed.

Last resorts

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