(Dec. 28, 2012) A concentration of tragic deaths this summer stirred action on a long-simmering concern in Ocean City, pedestrian safety.
The summer 2012 season was, by all accounts, the worst in recent memory for pedestrian-vehicle crashes and, in two cases, deaths, on Coastal Highway. The subsequent scramble by government agencies to curb the problem has left a number of solutions on the table, some of which may induce considerable changes to the city’s layout.
The Ocean City Police Department announced in September that pedestrian collisions had risen almost threefold, from 12 during the 2011 summer season to 34 during the same period this year.
But pedestrian safety was already on the radar from the beginning of the summer, where two early-season deaths had caught the city’s attention.
Matthew Jude Cheswick, 22, a Towson University student from Cooksville, was killed May 28 while standing in the bus lane at 54th Street. He was struck by a drunk driver, Diogo Miller Facchini, who fled the scene but was later apprehended.
A week later, on June 4, Samantha Sweitzer, 15, an Allegany High School student from LaVale, was killed while attempting to cross Philadelphia Avenue at 21st Street. She reportedly was not in the crosswalk and going against traffic.
In the majority of cases throughout the summer, it was reported that victims were either not in a crosswalk, or crossing against the signal. There was 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.
What officials believe to be the key component of the problem is in the way, historically speaking, that the upper areas of the resort have been developed.
As Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out at a meeting last month, the midtown area of the resort is laid out with lodging on the ocean side and bars and restaurants on the bay side, creating an evening tide of vacationers crossing the highway from east to west, and then back again.
As expected, the State Highway Administration’s historical data supports this. The stretch of road between 17th and 56th Streets accounts for the bulk of pedestrian collisions in the resort. Well over half the crashes in this area, according to SHA Assistant District Engineer Ken Cimino, were at night and/or occurred when the struck pedestrian was intoxicated.
This led the SHA to adopt some immediate mitigation measures in the middle of the summer season, such as posting electronic sins along Coastal Highway and the Route 50 approach, warning visitors to use crosswalks at all times. After the early-season deaths of Cheswick and Sweitzer, no more fatalities were reported, although non-fatal collisions continued to rise.
In September, OCPD Chief Bernadette DiPino sent a letter to the City Council asking for its endorsement of her plan to ask the SHA to lower the speed limit on Coastal Highway from 40 miles per hour to 35 mph between 33rd and 62nd Streets. The same lowering was done in 2000, at the city’s request, for the stretch between 17th and 33rd Streets.
The SHA also announced that it would be working on a further traffic study, which was specifically targeting what the state believed to be the resort’s most dangerous stretch of highway between the convention center and the Route 90 bridge.
The results of that work were presented to the city in November, along with the SHA’s request to proceed with a number of feasibility studies for ideas, which, although still in their tentative stages, could involve major changes to the layout of the resort.
From January of 2008 to August of 2012, Cimino found that the 1.3-mile corridor between Convention Center Drive and 62nd Street saw 41 pedestrian accidents, including one fatality. Of the total number of incidents, 22 involved alcohol, 27 were at night and 11 involved bicycles. From January through August of 2012, there were 12 crashes, nine of which involved alcohol.
Foremost among the potential fixes that Cimino is studying is the idea of a median barrier that would physically prevent pedestrians from crossing outside of the crosswalks. The barrier would likely run from 41st to 59th Streets, given the resorts’ layout and the fact that this would cover the area where a large number of major nightlife attractions are located. The barrier could consist of traditional iron fencing, aluminum paneling with a baked finish, or possibly vegetation that would be very dense and difficult to traverse.
The other possible major change to the thoroughfare would be what Cimino referred to as a “road diet,” which would eliminate one car lane from the highway on each side, and use the additional space to install a dedicated bicycle lane and widen the sidewalks.
“Our office of highway design is currently working on studies for all of the options,” Cimino said this week.