(Sept. 20, 2013) With funding in place for next year’s outreach campaign and a number of major capital improvements in the pipeline, the State Highway Administration’s aggressive push to improve pedestrian safety in the resort will likely continue long beyond this summer’s efforts.
That initiative, however, was hailed as a success at this week’s bi-monthly meeting of the Ocean City Pedestrian Safety Committee, where Ocean City Police Department data showed a 39 percent decrease in the number of pedestrian collisions in the resort versus 2012.
That reduction expands to 52 percent on roads managed by the SHA, which include Coastal Highway and the southern portion of Baltimore Avenue.
“We have a lot here to be happy with, but we certainly shouldn’t be satisfied at this point,” SHA District Engineer Ken Cimino said.
Most importantly, however, pedestrian deaths have been reduced from two last year to none this year.
“The bottom line is that we saw a 100 percent reduction in the fatality rate,” said Lt. Scott Harner, the OCPD’s lead accident reconstructionist and investigator.
“One of the most difficult and challenging jobs I have is when someone calls and tells you there’ s been a fatality, and you have to make that communication to the family or friends,” Harner said. “That’s one of my resolves in this campaign, that I haven’t had to do that, which is really personal for me.”
The Pedestrian Safety Committee was formed last year in response to an uptick in pedestrian-vehicle collisions in the resort – 41 in total, versus 17 in 2011.
Those also included the early-season deaths of two young vacationers. Matthew Cheswick, 22, was killed on May 28, 2012. Samantha Sweitzer, 15, was killed June 4, 2012.
In the majority of cases throughout the 2012 summer, victims were reported either not in a crosswalk or crossing against the signal, following an alarming trend of vacationers running across Coastal Highway mid-block, often from the raised brick median where drivers do not expect then to be.
This spurred the SHA and the Town of Ocean City to partner to find both short- and long-term solutions to traffic safety. Crucially, the SHA allocated a massive amount of state dollars towards what became the “Walk Smart” outreach and publicity campaign.
“We hate to say that we’re ever a success,” SHA media head Lora Rakowski said. “Our goal is toward zero crashes, but we did see a marked benefit from our outreach and education efforts.”
According to SHA data, 63 percent of those surveyed saw the “Walk Smart” campaign in some capacity. The same survey showed that 50.7 percent of respondents said they always used crosswalks and waited for the appropriate signal.
By far the most visible element of the campaign was the cartoon crab used by the SHA as a mascot for safe pedestrian behavior on Coastal Highway. The character was featured on posters, banners and other print advertising, as well as radio and TV spots.
The SHA even developed promotional coasters given out to bars and restaurants, which were often tongue-in-cheek and featured the crab using stereotypical bar-scene pick-up lines.
“It was an excellent opportunity to reach high-risk people who are otherwise hard to reach,” Rakowski said. “The young and inebriated are really our target set.”
Along with the elimination of fatalities, the incidence of drivers hitting intoxicated pedestrians dropped by more than half this year, with only eight such incidents in 2013 versus 19 in 2012.
Further, the crab campaign may become a statewide initiative, with the SHA using it in some metro areas as well.
“It’s more identifiable,” Rakowski said. “People will see the crab and think pedestrian safety, and they’ll be thinking that on their way to Ocean City.”
“It’s my sense that they are looking at our program here to try to move some of the elements to other high-accident corridors in the state,” Cimino said.
Rakowski also noted that many of the SHA’s efforts, while initially geared toward pedestrians, had been further tailored to drivers.
“As we were seeing our first crashes in Ocean City that involved the fault of the driver, we did re-target some of our message,” Rakowski said. “We’ll be looking to get that out even earlier next year.”
With equal success, the SHA’s engineering department also developed a multitude of new signage and pavement markings, warning pedestrians not to cross mid-block. Out of 536 people surveyed on the resort’s streets by the SHA, 295 said they had seen the markings, even more than said they had seen the media campaign. Only 118 reported having noticed nothing.
“While people noticed the pavement markings more, what they really seemed to remember was the crab,” SHA engineer Dallas Baker said. “The majority of those who said they hadn’t seen anything were also folks who said, ‘It’s my first night here,’ which says to me that there’s further opportunity to advertise on the corridors coming into town.”
According to Baker’s data, 48 percent of those responding said the SHA’s efforts influenced their decision to use crosswalks. This does not include those who said they were not influenced because they already made a habit of proper crossing.
The SHA will also be moving forward with two significant changes to the roadway itself. A stoplight and pedestrian signal will be installed at 54th Street in front of Macky’s, similar to the one at 49th Street in front of Seacrets. Last year, the stretch between 52nd and 56th streets – the longest strip with no controlled crossing – saw 14 percent of all accidents and one of the fatalities.
“I think we’re on target for having that construction started this fall or early in the winter,” Baker said.
“It’s scheduled to definitely be on-line by Memorial Day,” Cimino added.
Further, the administration has approval from the Maryland Highway Safety Office to lower the speed limit on Coastal Highway between 33rd and 62nd streets from 40 miles per hour to 35.
“We were required to do a study to make sure it was appropriate,” Baker said. That study found that 85 percent of motorists are going 37 mph and below, and 50 percent are going 33 mph and below.
“We’ll have to work with the town to decide when that’s going to be implemented and how we’re going to go about it,” Cimino said.
The SHA will also continue with its timing modification of existing traffic signals. Turns onto Coastal Highway from the side roads at the 28th, 94th, and 130th street intersections are now split, meaning that traffic from the east and west sides turn separately and will not be conflicting with pedestrians when they have the green arrow.
This caused some consternation earlier this year about excessive wait times at 94th Street, where Cimino has since lowered the threshold at which the traffic sensors detect a backup and increase the amount of green time for north-south traffic.
“We lowered the threshold whereby the system has to move to the next highest cycle,” Cimino said. “The delays seemed to go away, so we’re going to go with that same timing next year.”
“The split phase will continue,” he added. “To go back on it now when people already have that expectation could be disastrous.”
All signals on the highway have also had seven seconds of exclusive pedestrian walk time added to them to further reduce the danger from turning vehicles.
“We had a lot of people actually comment that they noticed there was more time for them to get out in the road so they could be seen before the cars started turning,” Baker said.
Further, 13 key intersections now have pedestrian signals that operate automatically – known as ‘pedestrian recall’ – between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., so that potentially intoxicated pedestrians will not have to remember to push the button to cross the street safely.
“The recall was only at night, and will drop off Oct. 1,” Cimino noted. “The pedestrian advance time is going to stay year-round.”
The largest-scale traffic change yet proposed – and one that will likely take many years and millions of dollars, if implemented – would be a ‘road diet’ that would remove a lane of traffic from Coastal Highway to widen sidewalks and install a bicycle lane.
“We’ve taken the road and modeled it under existing conditions, and found that there was no real depreciation in the level of service from what we’re seeing now,” Baker said. “We’ve asked our engineers to model that out to 2020 as well so we can see what effect it will have on future traffic.”
Such a redevelopment of the road would also likely involve a median barrier, like a low fence or vegetation, to further prevent mid-block crossings.
“Our vision here is a composite…that includes both components of the road diet and the median barrier,” Cimino said. “I’m excited about it. I’m hopeful we can get this done and move forward.”
For 2014, the SHA will redirect its focus from the mid-town stretch between the convention center and Route 90 Bridge—the most hazardous zone in 2012—and work more closely on the corridor between 18th Street and 34th street. Of the 25 pedestrian collisions in the resort this year, 14 occurred below 40th Street.
The SHA will look closely at Baltimore Avenue, which is under its jurisdiction south of 15th Street. The city-owned road to the north will receive similar attention.
“We’ve thought that the time may be coming to do some signal studies there, even though there are no signals in our stretch right now,” City Engineer Terry McGean said.
“One of the most dangerous things we see is that drivers who know the law stop [for pedestrians in crosswalks], but other people who don’t will try to pass around them and hit the pedestrians, who think they’re okay to cross,” OCPD Capt. Kevin Kirstein said. “That’s something that we pushed hard about five years ago, but haven’t really hit on since.”