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Op-Ed: Lower the Speed Limits Around Seneca Valley High School

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. “ -- ­Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Germantown is bursting at the seams with 100,000 residents. We are the third largest community in Maryland behind Baltimore and Columbia.

The defacto center of Germantown is at the intersection of Middlebrook Road and Germantown Road.

With the new Seneca Valley High School on the horizon — hopefully by 2018 — the population of the school will jump from 1400 to 2400. One thousand additional students. Imagine the increases in cars, buses and foot traffic.

Germantown Road/MD Route 118 is just two-tenths of a mile from Seneca Valley High School. The speed limit on Germantown Road is 40 mph; however, many vehicles appear to be traveling at greater speeds.

High school students must walk if they live within two miles of their high school. The county does not provide crossing guards for high school students and recommends that the PTA be the source of financing for a crossing guard.

Why not bus the students across Germantown Road and have them disembark at a safe area on the other side of MD Route 118? There are a number of safe areas in the shopping mall with McDonalds and Giant on the western side of Middlebrook Road. They could continue their walk home from this point.

The bus option would be an improvement for the seven lanes of traffic that must be navigated from one side of MD Rt. 118 to another. There are 25 lanes of traffic at that intersection altogether.

We have some sections of I- 270 that have about six lanes of highway, excluding the exit lanes. We would not ask children to cross I-270, yet the speed of some of the vehicles exceed 50 mph on Germantown Road. We put some of our students in harm’s way as many as four times a day.

Students must wait for the rotation of the lanes of traffic and cannot simply push the pedestrian button and get an immediate signal to cross the road. It takes two-and-a-half minutes for the rotation of the traffic lanes to allow pedestrians to walk.

Jaywalking is a daily occurrence. Students feel that they have safety in numbers and that they are invincible.

Often when they get the signal to proceed they step out without checking on the traffic. It is rare to see a student look left before stepping out. In the last three years, I have personally seen approximately 10 accidents prevented by a volunteer shouting “heads up” or a student or volunteer pulling someone away, at the last second, to prevent them from walking into the path of a speeding car. Police statistics do not list close calls.

It complicates matters that cars waiting for a traffic light do not have easy access to see the crossing signal. If you are in your vehicle and waiting at the corner of Middlebrook Road and Germantown Road heading south, it is almost impossible to see that the crossing signal is lit for pedestrians who about to cross right in front of you.

Also, cars often are sitting on the crosswalk when the signal to walk is given, making students go around the vehicle, not totally secure that the car might back up at that moment.

When crowds of students stand at the corner of Germantown Road and Middlebrook Road the line of vision for drivers is impeded. Drivers going north on Germantown Road waiting to take a right turn onto Middlebrook Road cannot see who might be standing on the corner attempting to cross Middlebrook Road. The student gets the signal to cross and steps out. The driver is anxious to finally get a chance to proceed at the exact moment that students — who also have the walk signal — step onto the street.

Last October brought two very close calls at this same location because the line of vision is blocked for drivers. Sadly, the No Turn on Red sign that was placed on this corner has NOT been an improvement in safety.

Middlebrook Road has a speed limit of 40 mph. The area of Middlebrook Road close to Seneca Valley High School has a speed limit of 40 mph and 30 mph during school hours. A reduced speed limit would provide a safer environment for our students.

Christina Morris-Ward was killed on Oct. 31, 2012, while crossing Germantown Road and Wisteria Drive on her way to school. She did not wait for the walk signal, and her dark clothing made her all but invisible. The driver of the vehicle, a 27-year-old man had the “right of way” and never saw her.

Christina was just 15 years-old and had hoped to be a pediatrician. Gwen Ward, the mother of Christina, said that “of all the things that worried her when Christina walked to school, getting hit by a car was not on the top of the list.”

In October 2015, a Seneca Valley student on his bicycle was struck on his way to school one morning by a van driver who fled the scene at Great Seneca Highway and Wisteria Drive.

It would help all of the pedestrians of Germantown if the speed limit were reduced on Germantown Road at least through the center of town from Wisteria to Crystal Rock or Aircraft. This would also make the road safer for the approximate 50 students who cross MD Rt. 118 at Middlebrook Road and Wisteria Drive every day, some as many as four times a day: early morning, to and from open lunch, and dismissal. In 2013, there were as many as 80 students who crossed at this corner.

Business owners would get more “foot traffic” if pedestrians felt confident about the safety of their families. It would be beneficial also to lower the speed of Middlebrook Road from Father Hurley to a point past Ridgecrest Drive. It is currently 40 mph. Wisteria Drive, which parallels Middlebrook Road is far less crowded and has a speed limit of only 30 mph.

Roberto Clemente Middle School students cross Middlebrook Road at Ridgecrest Drive. There is no crosswalk, no light, and no signs for these students. Watching them cross Middlebrook Road is like watching cats cross a highway.

Wisteria Drive, the school boundary on the south side of the Seneca Valley (which parallels Middlebrook Road) has fewer lanes, is less crowded and has a speed limit of 30 mph. Wisteria Drive and Crystal Rock Drive was the site of a pedestrian accident in the Fall of 2014, the same day as the launch of well-publicized Countywide Pedestrian safety campaign at Seneca Valley High School. The student was hit but was well enough to return to school the next day.

A traffic light at the corner of Crystal Rock Drive and Wisteria Drive would help with the increased foot and vehicle traffic. At present there is a crosswalk and the usual yellow “school” indicator signs.

Wooten High School in Rockville is located on a two-lane County street. There are no other boundary streets. They have two sets of blinking “Your Speed is…” signs and two speed cameras. The speed limit on that stretch of road is 25 mph.

Gaithersburg High School has a six-lane road directly in front of their building with a greatly reduced rate of speed and two speed cameras.

Northwest High School in Germantown also has “blinking speed signs,” speed cameras on Great Seneca Highway as well as a very high fence to require crossing at the corners.

Healthy Montgomery held a Health and Wellness community conversation in the fall of 2015. Pedestrian safety was listed as a top concern among the participants.

The construction of the new high school, as well as a new large CVS, will give more challenges to pedestrian safety when you consider the increase in traffic for that store.

CVS will be constructed on the corner of Wisteria Drive and Germantown Road. What additional safety measures are in the plans for the safety of our students?

The Washington Post reports that Whitman High School on River Road had been trying to get a traffic light for 10 years for the back entrance to their school. Sadly three people in one family were killed there this week. We in Germantown do not want to have any more fatalities in this heavily traveled area when additional signage and lowering of speed limits would greatly improve the safety of everyone.

We would greatly appreciate blinking signs, speed cameras and reduced speeds around Seneca Valley High School to keep our children safe.

Ruthanne Stoltzfus

Germantown Pedestrian Safety

Germantown Pedestrian Safety’s mission is to ensure a safer pedestrian experience for all residents throughout Germantown, with special attention paid to the areas surrounding Seneca Valley High School. Formed after the death of Christina Morris-Ward in October of 2012, the group has been working with MCDOT and County Officials to improve pedestrian safety in the Germantown area. Anyone interested in joining the group may email Ruthanne Stoltzfus.


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