Friday, June 11, 2010

Another Week, More Examples

So, in the week that saw the trotting out of the SECOND speed camera on Bowie streets, and the shortening of the range of the first trap, it is time to talk about the insanity connected to getting these safety devices up and protecting us.

The reason for the selection of the two sites is remarkably simple -- they are easily justified, as both are areas right in front of public schools KNOWN for excessively speedy traffic.

However, they also have one other common factor, which in this case is key -- they are the only such schools within the city limits of Bowie of which all of the above are true AND the street is a city street -- not a county or state road!

And there is the rub -- the most dangerous sites, more worthy of these speed traps, are all on roads that the City of Bowie needs to NEGOTIATE to patrol with this technology. And once again, apparently we here in Bowie place a higher value on our own lives and limbs than do those in Upper Marlboro and Annapolis who view our fair city merely as a cash cow -- wondering how to get more FROM us, while doing nothing of value FOR us.

Something to think about with the upcoming elections on the horizon!

Another item -- I understand that we are supposedly setting these photo traps to protect the schools and their families. I also understand that the mechanics of these devices need to be checked and certified daily. But I wasn't aware that crime was such a factor in Bowie Land that there was a significant value in taking the guts of these sensors in for safe keeping each night. And I can't think of any other reason why they are removed nightly.

Those of us who drive North View at all hours of the day and night know that a) the driving behavior doesn't get better after 8 PM (when the machinery is removed), and b) we are laughing at how quickly the driving behavior HAS changed -- but in the least safe way possible. Now, cars race up to the first installment, jam on the breaks to get under 42 mph (because remember, the speed LIMIT is 30!), and, as soon as they clear the other side, speed up even more significantly to make up for the lost time of having to slow down for those darned cameras. Is this excessive speed on this road any less dangerous at 6 AM or 9 PM? Clearly not -- if anything, the darkness and fatigue factor in other drivers make these times MORE dangerous. Yet, at these times, we citizens lack the protection of these saftey devices!

Another example of static analysis making a dangerous situation WORSE and not better! So, of course, under these circumstances, the length between the two installationss has been REDUCED! I guess people complained that they had to slow down for too long!! Oh for the bygone days when there was regularly a marked car hiding behind the fence at the intersection before Allen Pond to stop and punish speeders. A hint to Bowie's finest -- it is needed even more now -- and one heading the other way past the trap zone would be equally lucrative and useful!

And finally for this week, I expect to be blown past on Mitchellville Road by guys like the one driving the Black Chevy Tahoe, MD Tag 88993 did to me on my way back to work at about 2:15 today after a late lunch with my wife -- after all, NO ONE does 35 on that stretch of this COUNTY road -- which is why it IS one of the few places you will still find speed enforcement in marked cars (this guy had to be going over 50 mph as he zipped past).

But my "driving example" of the week for just how bad the situation is in Bowie occurred not 5 minutes earlier, as I drove across Kenhill and turned south on 197. I was tailgated almost the entire length of Kenhill by 2 vehicles. As we turned at the traffic light, the first vehicle went to the right lane, and flew onto the ramp to 50 before I could record his identification. But the SECOND vehicle, having already pulled into the left turn lane next to me, first flew past me to the red light before the flyover of 50, only to fall behind me for having to break fully and then start from a dead stop when the light changed, only to fly past me a SECOND time at excessive speed. Imagine my surprise when I looked over at the driver of this vehicle, a White Toyota Corolla, MD Tag KCE065 and she turned out to be a white haired dowager -- boy, I sure hope that wasn't Aunt Agatha flying around like that!

Now I am no ageist, but when that kind of overly aggressive driving behavior is exhibited by the types that usually make you wonder why their children haven't taken away her car keys because she is so afraid to be on the road, then we REALLY have a problem!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The First (of many) Scofflaws Report

Shockingly, it actually took a couple of days of this blog's existence before we have the first set of scofflaw reports -- of course, when the dam DID break, it broke multiply.

The first set of three incidents, all interrelated, occurred on the trip home from work -- Thursday night, approximately 8:30 pm.

The issues began coming across North View, and waiting to turn left onto 197 north. An obviously ditracted cell phone using driver was driving without awareness of speed or lane. After I passed, legally, heading north on 197, the car sped up to go around and pass me back, cutting in front of me for good measure at the Kenhill light. This was a White GT, MD Tag 2FTV42. Adding to the fun, apparently STILL on the cell phone, as we approached the red light at 450, this vehicle was still directly in front of me in the left northbound lane, then swerved into the left turn lanes, and then swerved back into my lane, almost clipping me. It appeared that there might have been a change in travel plans to continue chasing after the minivan flyer, as all THREE of these knuckleheads exploded away from the 450 light as it changed.

Meanwhile, as we waited at the traffic light after the Rt 50 flyover, where the unnecessary extra left lane becomes the left turn lane into Collington, just as the light went green, one of these flyers came roaring through the intersection in that left lane, at excessive speed, and quickly cut off the lead driver in the left lane, and THEN cut over again because there were fewer cars in the right lane at the red light at Kenhill, ending up directly ahead of our cell-phone talking distraction case. This minivan, MD Tag 331M738clearly was the most aggressive driver of the bunch, although all three deserved to be cited.

As if having those two in front of me wasn't bad enough, thankfully the single car ahead of both of them was quick on the draw, but not excessive, forcing speed demon to stay behind her. However, the clown in the left hand lane next to the cell-phone bandit in the GT refused to yield on the merge, but also refused to go past, until after we were down to a single lane. His failure to yield was every bit as dangerous as the GT's. He was driving a Mitsubishi Gallant, MD tag 6BFG45.

Then, around 12:40 today, driving from picking up my car after an oil change and some minor repairs, I had just made the turn from Stonybrook onto Belair to go across Kenhill and head over to 197 and the office. As I did, coming out of that next right hand side street, without even slowing down at the stop sign before turning, a white Chevy conversion van, MD Tag 765M104, forced me to slow down to avoid running into him. He then, of course, proceeded to turn left, without benefit of signal, onto Kenhill. As I followed behind him at 25 mph, he pulled steadily away from me the entire length of the street, so I was amused to pull in behind him with his "Real Men Love Jesus" bumper sticker, and laugh to myself that a) he STILL wasn't getting there any quicker than I was, and b) WWJS to someone parading his name around and behaving this selfishly and poorly?

But the most bizarre incident of the week, by far, came shortly after that, as my wife and I drove into the Town Center for lunch at Panera's. In the fire lane behind Pizzeria Uno, and significantly blocking the crosswalk, pathway, AND fire lane, was an oversized refrigerated 18 wheeler, engine running. When we came out after eating, 30 minutes later, it was still there. I couldn't help but notice that it would have been almost impossible for the driver to have gotten out of his cab, so close was his door to the crosswalk sign. As I recorded his information (Northstar US Food Services, PA Tag AF-45069), I noticed standing by his marked car directly in front of us a Prince George's uniformed officer, name tag Benson. When I first asked him if this was legal, he said he thought the guy was making a delivery. When I countered that he had been there for 30 minutes, he acknowledged that he was aware of it, and went through all the motions of preparing to write up what he described as a "$500 ticket."

I thanked him and walked away towards our car. As we got to our car, I noticed someone come out and open up the back of the truck, and almost simultaneously, saw Office Benson return to his lady friend at his car. As we left the parking lot, we pulled around, so I could let him know there was now someone at the truck.

At this point, he explained to me that he had been told, presumably by the manager at Uno's, that the driver of the truck had fallen off the back earlier, and had to be taken to the hospital, that police had responded earlier to that incident, and everyone was aware of the circumstances. He also mentioned that the cab was locked with the engine running to keep the refrigeration going.

As we drove away, I pondered to myself, still, how that cab door could have been so close to the sign. But then I started thinking about the story. On the assumption that the driver would NOT routinely, in the Bowie Town Center, lock the cab with the keys in the ignition while making a simple delivery. someone had gotten his keys, or at least locked the cab for him after the accident. WHY THEN, if they knew they had a truck there for the long term, and they had both the keys and access to the cab, was no effort made to pull it forward the hundred or so feet, into the livery area next to Panera's, clearing both the fire lane and the crosswalk, instead of leaving this dual threat in place?

On the one hand, I hope the story is NOT accurate, and that there were no injuries to anyone, and that this is merely another case of excuse making substituting for law-enforcement. More likely, this is EXACTLY how things went down, and I hope the driver's injuries are not serious. However, in EITHER case, the handling of this matter leaves questions about the efficacy and concern for pedestrians and drivers in the Town Center. I realize that technically, that is private property. However....

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Route 197 Corridor

According to Mapquest, the trip from my home in the Grady's Walk subdivision to my office is 4.43 miles (although they do not send me the way I always go), and should take 8 minutes. Almost all of it is spent on Rte 197, North View Drive, and Mitchellville Road -- main roads in our fair town.

There are two things I know for sure from the experience of making that trip a dozen times a week or so -- first, it rarely if ever takes 8 minutes anymore. Second, a day in which I do not witness at least one egregious act of dangerous willful or negligent driving behavior is a rarity.

Rt. 197 -- Collington Road -- is a unique duck. From its southern starting point at Rte. 301, it winds north in two, and then three lanes, passing two major shopping areas, before crossing Rt. 50, and dropping back to two lanes. Through that area, the posted speed limit is 45, which is virtually never enforced, and rarely observed.

At Tasker Middle School, the speed limit drops to 40 mph, and the road merges to a single lane in each direction (although plans are in the works to widen this stretch!?). At the top of the hill, after the Tulip Grove traffic light, the second lane returns, as the road passes the old Rt. 450 and another commercial strip on the left, before reaching the major intersection with the new 450. The speed limit, however, remains 40 mph through here, and indeed, until after passing Rockledge Elementary School, almost on the northern edge of town, when it rises again to 45 -- although one would never know this from observing traffic flow.

Grady's Walk sits just north of this intersection of 197 and 450, on the left as you head north -- with its only 2 entrances on the western side of 197. Between those 2 entrance roads to the subdivision, the road, now moving from north to south, completes a mild ascent, and then begins downward just before the second entrance, as it approaches 450, creating a slight visual impairment in some circumstances.

When 450 was moved to its new location, the traffic pattern for Grady's Walk changed dramatically. We are now much closer to the major intersection -- close enough that in heavier traffic, the southbound back-up from the traffic light routinely passes the southernmost entrance. In a bad circumstance, like the all too frequent accidents along that stretch, the southbound traffic can easily stretch back beyond the northern entrance to Old Church Road. In a serious emergency, as recently occurred, causing a closing of the road, our neighborhood can, in fact, be cut-off.

With the concrete median extending north from the intersection to the southernmost entrance to the community, that entrance becomes the first turning opportunity heading north on 197 after 450. In addition, heading southbound towards the 450 intersection, the approach lane to the ramp to head west on 450 begins immediately south of the southern entrance to the subdivision, at that same intersection where the median ends for northbound travelers on 197.

With the physical description complete, I move now to some of the "normative" driving behaviors exhibited through this area.

Within the expected and legal, with the double stream of northbound traffic -- one continuing north on 197 from south of the intersection on their green light, the other turning northbound from eastbound 450 on their light -- there is an extended period of accelerating traffic northbound which, by itself, severely limits the ability to make a left turn (northbound) out of the southern entrance to Grady's Walk. This window is further reduced by those turning right on red or green from westbound 450, and by the steady stream of southbound traffic, unslowed since the traffic light at Old Church Road, which as a result, varies wildly in speed. It is not uncommon in the morning rush to have to wait upwards of 2 minutes to turn left out of the subdivision at this location, and I am told that at the northern end, the situation is similar, only the wildly divergent speeds are working in BOTH direction of 197 there. In addition, there is the "x-factors" in the southbound lanes of vehicles entering into or exiting from the several driveways of the churches just north of the northern entrance, and the fact that the northern entrance is, in fact, an unregulated 4 way intersection -- with only stop signs on the cross streets (but nothing on 197) controlling traffic flow or speed.

The back-up of southbound traffic to the southern entrance often leaves the "box" blocked -- sometimes in one lane, sometimes in both. However, even when traffic in the left southbound lane stops north of the intersection, and allows entrance and exit to the subdivision, traffic in the right lane often continues -- and is blocked by the courteous drivers in the left lane! Worse, when the right lane's traffic does NOT extend across the intersection, which is the only thing which slows late arriving southbound vehicles, there is still the likelihood of someone flying down the extreme right into the turning ramp to 450! As difficult as getting out of Grady's Walk can be in the morning, getting back in during the evening rush can be downright dangerous!!

And we haven't even factored into this mix yet the very dangerous "sharking" behavior of those wishing to go westbound on 450 coming from the south on 197, when the left turn arrows have already recycled red. Rather than waiting the 60 - 90 seconds in the left turn lanes, as expected by law, these clowns continue north through the intersection, then use the southern Grady's Walk entrance as a u-turn, to go back and get on the southbound ramp to 450. Their selfish, and (so I am told) illegal behavior saves them seconds, but endangers and inconveniences countless others!

While larger solutions exist to this set of dangerous challenges (cheif among them a deliberate traffic quieting scheme through this stretch), it appears that most of these interconnected problems can be solved by a series of what seem to be simple and reasonable fixes. Yet, as noted in the comments to the first post of this blog, this area continues to be a major danger zone.

First -- the speed limits MUST be enforced in this stretch. When traffic can vary from 30 mph - 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, the differential speed, especially for those judging to come into or out of the side streets, represents a significant danger. I don't care about issues of jurisdiction -- get SOMEONE out there regularly, and make these speed demons slow down!

Second -- it would be incredibly helpful to have a coordinated pattern on the southbound lights at Old Church, the new 450 and the old 450, to move traffic through this stretch, and to slow down speeders by training them that they won't get through this stretch any quicker at 50 or 60 than they will at 40.

Third -- it would be incredibly valuable to add traffic lights at BOTH entrances to Grady's Walk. I realize there are complicated formulae for traffic volume that must be met to justify these, and am very skeptical of the fact finding that fails to acknowledge this need. I am very willing to have the northern light be a flashing yellow north and south and flashing red east-west for most of the day, only going operational during morning and evening rush hours (during which, this light, too, would be part of the southbound timing co-ordination).

I also believe that the southern light needs to be perfectly synchronized with the 450 light -- effectly stopping ALL approaching southbound traffic north of the Grady's Walk entrance when the 450 light goes red north and south. Failing the ability to convince and justify here, at the very least we need

Fourth -- clearly painted and marked intersection boxes at both entrances to Grady's Walk, heavily signed for increased fines for blocking the box, and regularly enforced (this enforcement can actually be accomplished with a single officer on foot patrol!) -- to make discourteous drivers more aware that there is a live intersection there!

and Fifth -- greater signage prohibitting the u-turn at the end of the concrete divider at the southern entrance to Grady's Walk, again with increased enforcement.

Despite the obvious logic of and need for these changes, no elected official at any level has yet been convinced to advocate strongly on their, and our, behalf; no DOT plan has yet embraced ANY of this; no amount of agreement from the Bowie Police in theory has led to any increase in patroling and enforcement in fact. And if the plans for expanding the 2 lane stretch of 197 to 4 lanes go through, removing the ONLY place along this stretch at which speeds currently occasionally decrease to close to the speed limit, these problems will only get worse!

How many more deaths and injuries have to occur before this is fixed?!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Welcome to "The Driving Force"

Let me begin by thanking my good friend, local Rabbi and quasi-celebrity Rabbi Steve Weisman, for allowing me to use a small corner of his empire in the blogosphere, hopefully to do some good.

Oh, and I guess I should introduce myself -- they call me Orange Vest Guy. I have been laying low for a little over 2 years now, my services as a volunteer traffic helper at two local public schools now a thing of the past.

But 5 years of standing in school driveways virtually every morning, and 10 years of driving the death traps that are the local roads of Bowie, MD didn't break me. Nor did they numb me to the harsh realities of the stupidities that pass for driving behavior in our little 'burg.

And now, as my own daughter approaches the time that she will be licensed by the state to have to defend herself against these selfish, unthinking psychopaths who call themselves drivers, I find myself moved to once again, try to become part of the problem.

I have spoken with the city manager, with local elected leaders on all levels. I have attempted to work with both the county and the state DOT -- and have been given a runaround every bit as frustrating and confusing as any of you have -- if you even bothered to try. This road is a state road -- we have no jurisdiction. This one is a county road -- they have jurisdiction. We don't have enough manpower to do traffic enforcement. I didn't want to give him a ticket, because then I'd have to be in court for a whole day. We were supposed to do that, but somehow it didn't happen. I have heard every excuse.

But I have also watched -- watched as the number of accidents and fataities on our roads has grown, even as the number of speed traps has shrunk over 10 years. Watched surveys done that tell us the average speed on North View BEFORE the school opened was 42 mph in a 30 zone -- and then seen NOTHING done about it. Watched speed cameras promised, then delayed for 6 months, then only ONE set up -- because of jurisdictional issues -- and that one only operative 12 hours a day on school days, set only to record those traveling more than 12 mph above the posted speed (what a coincidence -- THAT was the average speed on that road SEVEN years ago!) -- despite the already obvious behavioral changes in the first month of operations that tell me, even if no one else is watching, that the same selfish drivers WILL behave if they are afraid of being caught, and then return to not caring about anyone else on the road as soon as they clear the trap zone!

And I have watched -- as an off-duty County police officer committed vehicular homocide while traveling 50 mph in a 25 zone, and was given only a citation for excessive speed; as county school buses routinely violate speed and other traffic laws; as off duty officers continue to be able to use their official cars for personal business, and see no need to role model proper driving behavior when they do; as other official city and county vehicles do as they please; and as the average driver is endangered multiple times in the shortest of drives on our roads.

So I have decided -- I am tired and angry, and I am not going to take it any more! I have had friends injured severely -- and done nothing but complain. That time is now over!

With this blog, I will be monitoring the road conditions and driving behaviors I encounter on a daily basis driving in and around Bowie. The morons doing 60 mph and more on 197. The car parked sideways across 3 handicapped spots in the Target parking lot. The county CSI SUV speeding and running red lights, only to turn into his own driveway. And the myriad cell phone users, make-up appliers, lunch eaters, and others whose obviously distracted driving threatens us all.

And I will be sharing what I see -- including license plate numbers and other identifying markings. Because when I try to share this info with the police, if I can even get someone to take my report by the time I reach my destination, I am almost always told that there is little or nothing they can do.

Maybe when the volume of material compiled here becomes heavy enough to shift the foundation of the new police digs, and threaten to slide it into the nearby pond, someone will sit up and take action. But I am not holding my breath!

So I encourage my readers and friends to come along for the ride, and join the team. I will welcome additional reports from you, in the field -- just promise to be honest -- no need to exaggerate :(