WALDORF – Fifteen people have been killed on U.S. Route 301 already this year, a number so alarming that the State Highway Administration has started a study on the deadliest portion of the roadway.
Eleven of the 15 deaths occurred in the Prince George’s County stretch of the road, said Tom Hicks, the director of traffic and safety for SHA, compared to three in the county last year.
“The rash of fatalities in Prince George’s County caused us to look into the accidents,” said Hicks.
“We are going to read the police reports and see whose fault the accidents were,” said Hicks. “We are concerned if the accidents are related to a highway element.”
The study will determine “what steps must be taken next,” to improve the highway, he said. The study, launched by the SHA earlier this month, is expected to be completed by the end of November.
Route 301 neighbors and motorists who drive highway said improvements can’t come soon enough.
“We work and live on that road and more needs to be done than has been done so far,” said a Marlton resident, whose co-worker was killed on Route 301 on Oct. 15 when a tow truck ran a red light at Governor’s Bridge Road and Route 301.
Those who drive Route 301 say fixing the road itself is only part of the solution.
“A road is a road,” said John Adams, owner of John Adams Trucking in Brandywine. “There is nothing wrong with the highway, it is the people who get on the highway.”
The four-lane divided highway stretches about 125 miles in Maryland, crossing the Delaware line near Warwick and heading south and west until it crosses the Potomac River into Virginia over the Gov. Nice Memorial Bridge.
In between those two points, the non- limited-access highway rambles past farmland and bustling strip shopping centers. It is flanked by houses and businesses — including some that sit in the middle of the highway south of Bowie where the median widens.
Route 301, which crosses the Bay Bridge, is known by at least three other names: the Blue Star Memorial Highway on the Eastern Shore, the John Hanson Memorial Highway in Anne Arundel County and Crain Highway in Southern Maryland.
It was originally a rural route that has grown into a commuter artery.
In 1996, the most recent year for which SHA has numbers, the daily traffic volume on the Prince George’s County stretch ranged from 30,000 to 70,000 at the Charles County Line. Hicks said traffic volume on the highway increases by 3 percent every year.
But Route 301’s origins as a rural road have led to its biggest safety problem — the large number of stoplights and crossings that remain on the high-speed highway today.
“There are 60 interchanges on the Prince George’s County stretch of the road,” said Lt. Suzanne Jordan at the Maryland State Police barracks in Forestville.
The two fatal accidents that occurred in Queen Anne’s County this year were caused because drivers “failed to look both ways,” before crossing the highway, said Maryland State Police Lt. Ben Cohey, commander of the Centreville barracks. One of those two accidents killed a Clinton woman and her two daughters as they were returning from Dover Downs.
Accidents are caused by “stupidity on the part of our drivers,” said Cohey.
That opinion is shared by many who are familiar with the road.
Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Potomac, blames the problems on a combination of congestion and driver error, but says improving the highway is the only way to correct the problem.
“The only thing that has changed on Route 301 is the increasing number of drivers,” said Anderson, who also served on a task force that studied the highway in 1994.
“Congestion means less margin for error,” he said. “The way you correct for driver problems is better road design.”
The roads need to be designed to “protect drivers from themselves,” said Anderson. He said that adding bridges and tunnels to dangerous intersections would solve the problem.
“I wish we could retrain drivers but that is unrealistic,” said Anderson.
The SHA has plans to improve the highway, but Hicks said the only improvements made so far have been the addition of some turn lanes on the roadway.
In addition to the current study, a number of pilot projects are in place along Route 301, said Heidi Van Luven, the manager of intermodal programs at the Maryland Transportation Department.
One demonstration project’s goal is to develop a plan for development of the White Plains area of Charles County that encourages transit use and improves safety on the highway.
Another project will recommend improvements to the U.S. 301/Maryland Route 4 interchange near Upper Marlboro while a third would look at possible solutions to traffic problems at Route 197 in Bowie.
The goal of these projects is to “establish short- and long-term strategies,” according to a U.S. 301 newsletter published by the state. But, Van Luven said, “It is hard to tell when the demonstration projects will be completed.”
She said some pilot projects could take two years or more to complete, before the larger projects even begin.
James Swann, the manager of the Crown gas station on Route 301 south of Route 5, said the state is all talk, no action.
He said that he has seen no improvement to the road in the 12 years that he has worked at the gas station.
“It has been like this ever since I have been here,” said Swann.
The Marlton resident whose colleague was killed on Route 301 said those living along the road have waited long enough.
“We can’t wait five or 10 years for a long-term plan,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “Families have to live on the road and it is just too dangerous.”