LANGLEY PARK – Tara Harden made it halfway across University Boulevard on a recent afternoon, stepped off the median into the crosswalk and immediately jumped back when several cars barreled by her.
When the cars passed, Harden hesitantly made her way to the other side of the street, looking slightly defeated.
Harden, in her 50s, said she rarely sees drivers yield to pedestrians when she crosses the particularly dangerous stretch of University near New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County, where the crosswalk is not at an intersection.
Montgomery is one of four jurisdictions in Maryland that combined to make up 70 percent of 96 statewide pedestrian fatalities last year according to a Capital News Service analysis, but it’s the only county with a comprehensive plan to combat the problem.
Walkers and drivers have had a troubled relationship in Montgomery, where 18 pedestrians died in crashes last year, and 16 more have died so far this year. The deaths prompted an initiative to build several miles of sidewalks, improve pedestrian signals and target jaywalkers and careless drivers over the next six years.
But little is being done in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, which combined for 39 pedestrian fatalities in 2006.
Maryland law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, said Chuck Gischlar, a State Highway Administration spokesman.
“It might be good to put up signals at crosswalks,” Harden said. “That doesn’t mean the cars are going to stop, of course.”
Montgomery County officials hope the right amount of education, engineering and enforcement will make streets safer for walkers.
The initiative is an attempt to make a cohesive plan out of existing efforts, said Sonya Healy, chief of staff for Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, who helped put together the plan.
“What it’s basically going to do is take a systematic, comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety,” Healy said. “We’re going to take a snapshot of where we are today and see what needs to be done.”
The plan, announced Dec. 5, builds on the recommendations of Montgomery’s 2002 blue ribbon panel on pedestrian safety. It will evaluate high-incident areas for engineering and other improvements, said Tom Pogue, a county transportation spokesman.
“We feel like if we focus on a handful of areas each year then that gives us a means to evaluate the difference that we might be making,” Pogue said. “So they’ll be like little test tubes.”
Montgomery will work with state agencies on state-maintained roads within the county. Many pedestrian accidents occur on state routes like University Boulevard, Connecticut Avenue and Georgia Avenue.
In Prince George’s, there is less willingness to work on state roads, where Susan Hubbard of the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation said most fatalities happened in 2006.
“We only do county-maintained roads,” Hubbard said. “The state is responsible for all things pedestrian as well as driver safety on state roads.”
Hubbard was surprised to hear that a forthcoming report from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which tracks development and transportation, will rate Prince George’s the worst-performing district on pedestrian safety in the Metropolitan Washington region.
“I can honestly tell you that that surprises me,” Hubbard said.
But Cheryl Cort, the coalition’s policy director, said “Prince George’s actually has a terrible problem with pedestrian safety and we’re seeing very little to stop it.”
“The state shares a lot of the blame in the dangers that pedestrians face because they’re getting killed on state roads,” Cort said. There are best practices that all jurisdictions should be employing, including hiring bicycle and pedestrian planners. Prince George’s isn’t instituting these enough, she said.
The state is working on fixing problem areas, including the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, Gischlar said.
“In Langley Park, where Prince George’s and Montgomery meet, we’re putting up a wrought iron fence in the median to deter people from crossing mid-block,” he said.
But some experts cautioned against barriers meant to guide pedestrians.
“What often happens is, in our attempts to make areas safe for pedestrians, we often get misguided in that we discourage them from walking at all,” said Kelly Clifton, a researcher with the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Esther Eze, a Montgomery resident, stood waiting for the bus on University Boulevard Monday afternoon in the rain, watching people run across the street.
“If people follow the lines, then it should be safe, but people don’t have the patience and they keep crossing when cars are still coming,” she said. “People are not paying attention to this crosswalk.”
Crosswalk problems top the state’s to-do list. When it installs new traffic signals at existing crosswalks, it is retrofitting “walk/don’t walk” signals with new countdown pedestrian signals, and accessible pedestrian signals “alerting handicapped individuals to cross the street,” Gischlar said.
Baltimore City hired its first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in April, but she did not return calls.
“I would say we’re behind the curve as far as American cities go,” said Mark Counselman, a board member with One Less Car, a nonprofit advocating for alternative transportation.
Counselman cited his Charles Village neighborhood, where a crosswalk remained half-painted for a year before complaints from the community brought workers back to finish the job as an example of the city’s failure to get things done.
The city has emphasized the importance of renewing crosswalks since 2005, added pedestrian countdown signals at 50 intersections and placed pedestrian crossing signs at uncontrolled intersections, said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.
Yet, the city had 16 pedestrian deaths in 2006, four more than the previous year.
Sidewalks, or lack thereof, are the problem in Baltimore County, said county resident Bob Carson.
“In terms of walking, in a lot of ways there’s not much provision for it,” he said. “You get on a lot of streets in the county and there aren’t any sidewalks.”
There were 14 pedestrian fatalities in the county in 2006 and 15 the year before.
“We’ve had a couple gruesome accidents in Towson, where I work,” Counselman said. He recalled a hit-and-run accident last year where a 3-year-old boy in his stroller was dragged under a truck and later died in the hospital. The driver also hit and injured the boy’s grandmother.
“There’s no question that pedestrian safety has been an afterthought for decades,” Counselman said. “We’ve been building our highways for cars, cars, cars.”
It’s an afterthought even in an eastern county pedestrian and bicycle access plan that was adopted in November 2006.
“We’re not really attacking the problem through our plan,” said Kathy Schlabach, project manager at the county’s Office of Planning. The county is “not really bicycle or pedestrian oriented.”
Education has been touted as part of the solution — the State Highway Administration produces safety tips brochures, and Montgomery has made it a key point in its initiative.
But education is useless, said Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.
“I think focusing on education and all those related things aimed at motorists are a waste of time,” he said. “Everybody knows you’re not supposed to run over a pedestrian.”
The problem is a system that does not recognize walkers.
“We don’t think of walking as a mode of transportation, we kind of see pedestrians as an impediment to motorists,” said Clifton.
Both Clifton and Wilkinson said Montgomery’s plan is a start, but driver behaviors change is the key to making any initiative work.
Drivers don’t stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, Clifton said. “It’s a matter of changing the culture.”