Countdown timers approved for Four Corners crosswalks

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Kristi Chakrabarti | 15 years, 6 months ago

Construction of new countdown signals at the intersection of University Boulevard and Colesville Road is scheduled to begin in mid-October as part of a larger pedestrian safety initiative throughout the county.

Countdown signals are also proposed for the intersection at University Boulevard and Lexington Drive. While no specific start date has been identified yet, installation is expected to begin towards the middle of October, said Stephanie Yanovitz, the State Highway Administration (SHA) district three pedestrian safety coordinator.

The placement of countdown signals at crosswalks is one of several projects Blair has been pursuing in order to increase pedestrian safety around the school. Awareness of the issue of pedestrian safety has heightened throughout the county and especially at Blair due to recent accidents and the dangers of the intersections surrounding the building.

This week, the PTSA has been running daily Public Service Announcements on Info-Flow for Pedestrian Safety Week. The announcements inform students of pedestrian fatality statistics and laws governing passengers exiting Metrobuses. They also urge students to use the crosswalks and heed walking signals when crossing streets around the Blair campus.

Countdown to the signals

For the past three years, PTSA member Debbie Reed-Gillette has regularly contacted the SHA about improving the intersections around Blair for pedestrians. She notified the SHA again after her son, senior James Gillette, was struck by a car while crossing the street with the Blair wrestling team in October 2004. Last May, the intersections were approved for countdown signals by the SHA.

Blair has received yearly upgrades in signs and pavement markings, and the width of the sidewalk on the bridge on Route 29 over the Beltway was increased, according to Yanovitz. She said that the countdown signals are a relatively new technology in Maryland and that many of the older intersections do not have the necessary equipment to change to the new system. The SHA has given priority to schools and central business districts, according to Yanovitz.

The lights were approved for Blair primarily through the efforts of Reed-Gillette and the PTSA, which has been meeting with the administration to increase awareness of the pedestrian safety problem and to find ways to address it.

Hazards of walking

Parents who have been working to make the Four Corners area safer said the speed limits near the school are dangerously high. "The 40 miles per hour is an insane standard. It's an insult to the safety of the kids," said PTSA Cluster Coordinator Peter Lafen, who has been working on pedestrian safety for more than seven years.

The SHA has made it clear that a legal speed reduction will not be possible on the roads surrounding Blair because of the threat of increased traffic and congestion, said Reed-Gillette. Furthermore, the SHA has determined that "everything that can be done has been done" to make the intersections safer without risking added confusion, according to Reed-Gillette.

Aggressive motorists also increase the dangers of crossing many of the busy intersections in the county, including Four Corners, according to Montgomery County Pedestrian Safety Coordinator Christy Huddle. "I feel safer flying a hang glider than walking across the state roads in Montgomery County, because I don't trust the drivers," she said.

The high volume of traffic and the wide streets make it difficult for pedestrians to cross University Boulevard and Colesville Road. "You can't cross all six lanes in one cycle. You must stop at the middle island," said Reed-Gillette. She explained that her son's accident took place because the light changed while he was still crossing the road.

By displaying the number of seconds left until the traffic light changes, the countdown signals alert pedestrians to how much time they have to cross the street safely. "Even if you're on the track team, you'll know you can't make it in two seconds," said Pam Miller, the chair of the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee of Montgomery County.

Gillette, who regularly crosses the street at Four Corners, highlighted the need for pedestrians to be responsible, cautious and adhere to the signals. Since the accident, he has tried to wait longer to make sure he has ample time before he proceeds through the intersection. Gillette also agreed that, had he known how much time he had left to cross, he might have avoided his accident.

Countdown advantages

After a 2003 study of the effectiveness of the countdown signals, Montgomery County concluded that the lights are more effective than the flashing hands, said Huddle. Additionally, the countdown signals have a more universal meaning, according to Miller, because the symbols of the flashing hands and the walking man have different meanings for people from different cultures.

The effectiveness of the signals depends primarily on whether or not students choose to heed them. "If [the students] ignore the crosswalks, it won't help them any," said Reed-Gillette. The PTSA has discussed installing a fence along the dividers to decrease the number of jaywalkers by forcing students to cross only at the crosswalks and obey the crossing signals.

Walking through the problems

Recent accidents have brought the issue of pedestrian safety to the forefront at Blair even though both the Blair community and Montgomery County have been working to increase awareness for the past few years. "It has probably been a problem for a long time, but it's starting to come home to a lot of us that we could lose someone," said PTSA member and parent Sally Stokes.

To increase awareness in the county, Delegate William Bronrott (D-Bethesda), approached County Executive Doug Duncan regarding pedestrian safety concerns in 2000, after former Police Chief Charles Moose said that there were more pedestrian deaths in the county than homicides between 1997 and 1999.

Shortly afterward, Bronrott was appointed to chair a Blue Ribbon Panel that spent about two years examining pedestrian safety problems in the county. One of the committee's 54 recommendations was the installation of countdown signals. Currently, the county must use countdown lights when it either replaces old signals or installs new ones.

Countdown lights are part of a three-fold initiative to increase pedestrian safety, which includes engineering, education and enforcement of laws, according to Miller.

Educating students is now the main priority at Blair; faculty and parents are discussing ways to inform students about the hazards of crossing the street without caution. "The biggest thrust at Blair is trying to get students aware of their surroundings," said Stokes, who attended a meeting with English teacher Lauren Nestuk, SGA sponsor Rondai Ravilious and Health teacher Susan Soulé on Sept. 20. At the meeting, numerous ideas were proposed to increase awareness, including the possibility of incorporating pedestrian safety into the Health curriculum or Connections classes.

Kristi Chakrabarti. Kristi Chakrabarti is finally a Magnet senior who is obsessed with basketball and is a die-hard Wizards fan. When she is not religiously following the NBA, she enjoys playing tennis and reading. Her favorite TV shows are Friends and ER and her favorite food is … More »

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