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Traffic planning needs to be done with future in mind

November 18, 2009

Driver error often is blamed for vehicular crashes, and in the purest sense, it's hard to think of an accident that does not involve some degree of driver error.

But when the pileups begin to pile up, as they have at the intersection of Eastern Boulevard and Chartridge Drive, another possibility raises its head -- design error.

Of course, it's unlikely that any government board or agency will accept responsibility for bad planning when it's much tidier to blame bad driving. Indeed, it has taken far too long for local governments to even acknowledge that a problem exists.

But you don't get six crashes in six months in the same spot of sensibly designed roads. Yes, too much speed, too much distraction and poor judgment are part of the mix, but these omnipresent human qualities are greatly exacerbated when -- as is the situation here -- intersections are placed too close to curves.

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The much-contemplated extension of Eastern Boulevard, which might straighten out or bypass the curve in question (and ease traffic congestion in the process) is the obvious solution. But as the Robinwood Drive corridor has taught us, permanent fixes in these parts can take decades to complete, if they are ever completed at all.

None of the short-term solutions seem terribly attractive. As Washington County Commissioner James F. Kercheval says, a traffic light might cause as many problems as it solves if a car rounds a bend to a line of stopped traffic. The idea of speed cameras is atrocious since they essentially would make drivers pay for the mistakes of traffic engineers and planning commissions.

This leaves us with rumble strips, which are becoming more and more common around the county. A rumble strip essentially is an admission of an inadequate road and a dearth of ideas, or money, to enact a permanent fix. To make up for bad highway planning, it becomes necessary to jar our cars into submission. Rumble strips are a reminder of a hazard, and they are a reminder that no one in power ever seems to plan for the future.

The traffic-related decisions of years past seem to indicate a pattern: That no provisions need to be made for the long haul. So we have situations such as the ones on Eastern Boulevard, Robinwood Drive and Wesel Boulevard, where slapped-together patches probably will be outdated by the time of their completion.

Washington County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire and Hagerstown City Councilwoman Ashley C. Haywood are correct to call for a city-county meeting to see what can be done, even though in some sense, and for some people, it's already too late. But if the Eastern/Chartridge intersection offers no easy solution, at least it should offer an easy lesson. Highways need to be designed not just on the needs of today, but on what the needs will be 20 years hence. What's adequate today will be antiquated tomorrow.

When people's lives are in the balance, there can be no excuse for passive thinking that sooner or later will have to be patched over with rumble strips.

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