by Aaron Kraut
Federal and county officials on Thursday urged parents and students to think about safe driving and walking to school before the MCPS school year starts on Aug. 26. Click here to view a video of the event.
Deborah Hersman, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), Montgomery County Police Capt. Tom Didone and MCPS Director of Transportation Todd Watkins spoke at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in North Bethesda about the dangers kids face on the roads once the school year starts.
The dealership and service center was hosting one of its regular car seat check events, in which Fitzgerald founder Jack Fitzgerald said volunteers and police have checked more than 44,000 car seats for proper fit and safety.
Safe Kids Montgomery County demonstrated how to safely cross a street with basic tips Van Hollen said often go unmentioned before the first day of school.
“That is the responsibility of the communities and families and students to work together,” Van Hollen said. “As our kids head off to school and they’re back looking for all sorts of supplies for school, [make sure] that we also supply them with the information that they need and their families with the information they need to make sure that they’re safe.”
In Bethesda, pedestrian safety around Bethesda Elementary School has been an issue since February, when a child in a stroller crossing an Arlington Road crosswalk was struck and dragged by a car making a turn. The child was uninjured.
A group of parents at the school started a petition for better markings, “No Turn on Red” signs and speed cameras in and around the intersection of Arlington Road and Edgemoor Lane.
A group of transit and pedestrian advocates followed with 10 recommendations to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation for new traffic engineering measures.
Didone, who heads the police department’s Traffic Division, said police this year have shifted their focus from changing pedestrians’ behavior to changing drivers’ behavior. The department has recently done a number of undercover stings in popular crosswalks to ticket drivers who don’t yield. Officers ran the operation on Wednesday at the Cordell Avenue crosswalk on Old Georgetown Road.
“The one unique thing about this is every time a car and a pedestrian try to occupy the same space, the pedestrian loses every time,” Didone said. “It’s the largest winning streak that’s ever occurred. As such, every one of those crashes is potentially life-threatening so every one of those crashes has to be addressed.
The Action Committee for Transit, which issued the recommendations to the county, on Thursday complimented Didone’s and police for their work. But the group claimed the Department of Transportation was still behind when it comes to engineering safe roads and intersections for pedestrians around schools.
“Traffic engineers need remedial education even more than schoolchildren,” ACT President Tina Slater said in the release. ”In our county, speed limits are too high, lanes are too wide, crosswalks aren’t marked, and unsafe turns are allowed. Cars should move no faster than 20 mph in school zones.”
Besides lowering speed limits in school zones, ACT is asking the county to consider leading pedestrian intervals at intersections — which would give pedestrians an exclusive window to cross in all directions — and more “No Turn on Red” signs.
Didone said the county is adequately dealing with the situation with a combination of engineering, education and enforcement.
“We are fortunate in Montgomery County, our Department of Transportation is on top of this,” Didone said. “Whenever we go into a problem area, we always start with looking to see those engineering changes — signs, signals, markings, changing the design of the roadway to enhance pedestrian safety.”
Watkins, who oversees the school system’s bus network, reminded drivers to stop when school buses are flashing lights and have stop sign extensions out.
The county recently installed cameras on some buses to catch drivers who maneuver around the buses stopped at bus stops.
“When you see a stopped school bus on the road, no matter how late you are, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in, stop,” Watkins said. “Because every time somebody makes a decision to pass a stopped school bus, it’s a potentially life-changing tragedy for some student and their family.”