ROCKVILLE – So far this year, 14 people have been killed and nearly 600 incidents involving bicyclists and pedestrians have occurred on county roadways, said Montgomery County Councilmember Evan Glass.
To stop these deaths, Glass held a Vision Zero Town Hall Dec. 14 at the county council building in Rockville to gather ideas on how to eliminate these deaths. But less than a half-hour after the meeting started, Glass told the crowded room that someone had just been struck on Viers Mill Road.
It already had been a traumatic week. A 9-year-old Bradley Hills Elementary School student was killed when she was struck by a school bus on Dec.12. The following day, a 17-year-old Walter Johnson High School senior was hit as he was crossing the street to get on a school bus and now is fighting for his life.
“Bottom line, this is about making safety a higher priority,” noted Councilman Hans Riemer. “Safety has to be priority number one and priority number two.”
“We need to work together” to educate drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists, said Council President Sidney Katz. It’s important to wear bright clothing, pay attention and build safe roads, he said.
“We are too distracted. It only takes a second to do a text, but it only takes half a second to have a terrible tragedy,” Katz said.
Several councilmembers expressed optimism that Gregory Slater, the State Highway Administration leader, is expected to replace Transportation Secretary Peter Rahn in January.
The council has had a contentious relationship with Rahn, especially in connection to the proposed expansion of Routes 495 and 270.
Slater understands that all roads should not be treated the same, Riemer said.
“The state needs to stop treating all our state roads like state highways,” he said, noting recent battles to reduce speed limits on some roads.
There have been 31 fatal crashes in the county this year, said Montgomery County Police Captain Thomas Didone.
“These are not just numbers. They all have a story,” said Didone, whose son died in a 2008 traffic accident.
That year, 50 people were killed on the road, which was “four times the number of homicides,” he said.
In the past four years, less than 30 people have been killed annually, but there has been “an uptick” this year.
Factors that lead to these fatal accidents include speed, distracted driving, alcohol, drivers not wearing seat belts and pedestrians staring at their phones rather than traffic, Didone said.
Police have issued 500,000 citations this year for traffic law violations, he said. Almost 60,000 of those citations involved drivers passing school buses, he said.
“When you speed up for a yellow light, bad things happen,” he said.
Also addressing the crowd was Travis Gayles, chief of public health services for the county, who noted that these accidents occur more frequently to people of color.
There needs to be more sidewalks where people can walk, he said.
Chris Conklin, the county’s new Department of Transportation, said in the past, politicians and developers focused on wider roads that allowed faster speeds to alleviate congestion.
This is changing, he said.
Toward the end of the meeting, residents took to the microphone to speak of close calls, dangerous intersections, a lack of proper lighting and plows that move snow in such a way that pedestrians are forced to walk in the street.
Jim Vormack of Boyds passionately told of a recent incident in which his wife was almost killed when biking. He called for more police enforcement, especially concerning distracted drivers.
“My wife was almost one of those pictures on a poster,” Vormacksaid of the posters that filled the council room. Each poster included a photo, name and age of someone who had been killed in a pedestrian or bicycle accident as well as details of the accident.