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The Charles County commissioners were torn Tuesday between a committee recommendation that traffic-calming devices be used to reduce speeding in residential neighborhoods and opposition from volunteer fire departments, who believe the devices could slow response times and endanger lives.

Former Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department chief Dan Stevens was alone on the eight-member Neighborhood Traffic Calming Task Force in his opposition to the program, but that was enough to give the commissioners pause in moving forward.

The remaining seven committee members — two residents and representatives from Charles County Public Schools, sheriff’s office and departments of Emergency Services, Planning and Growth Management and Public Works’ roads division — supported the creation of a traffic-calming program.

The recommended program would require 50 percent support from residents along an eligible street before a traffic study could be conducted. If devices are deemed necessary along the street, 70 percent of residents would need to support installing them.

To be eligible, a street would need to be a two-lane local or minor collector road in a residential neighborhood, carry a speed limit of 30 mph or less and be at least 1,500 feet long in order to accommodate at least two speed bumps, PGM highway engineer Donna Daugherty said.

In addition, the street cannot be an emergency response route and must have a minimum density of residential driveways, she said.

A traffic study would assign points to eligible roads based on their average traffic speed and volume, proximity to an elementary school or playground and status as a walk-to-school route. The presence of pedestrians, sidewalks and limited sight lines, as well as whether the road carries cut-through traffic also would be considered.

Streets that meet a minimum points threshold would be eligible for special pavement markings or signs, and county staff would work with residents to host an annual speed awareness program.

“It would be a peer-pressure type of thing to encourage people in their community not to speed,” Daugherty said.

Streets with more points would be eligible for speed bumps, traffic circles, roundabouts, chokers, semi-diverters, while “really drastic locations” could either get a full traffic diverter or be closed altogether, Daugherty said.

Based on similar programs implemented in other counties, the committee estimated that 41 humps would be requested in its first year before falling to 22 annual requests after that.

“This wasn’t something we just got off the top of our heads. We did some careful research,” said Deron Tross, Autumn Hills residents and task force chairman.

The committee set the program’s estimated annual cost at between $550,000 and $660,000. It also estimated that streets in the program would see a 4- to 8-mph reduction in average speed, a 14 to 47 percent reduction in accidents, and a 7 to 22 percent reduction in traffic.

But the safety improvements brought about by the program would be offset by its effect on emergency responders, Stevens said.

“We understand a safe environment for our kids and all,” he said. “I’d just like for you all to keep in mind, when somebody is hurt, we’re the folks that show up to mitigate the injuries.”

Stevens listed three concerns county fire departments had with the proposed program — the toll it could have on equipment, potential injuries to personnel and, most importantly, its effect on response times.

In addition to increasing general wear and tear on and potentially damaging fire trucks, speed bumps also can result in injuries to personnel inside an emergency response vehicle, which tend to have very stiff springs, Stevens said.

While departments have gotten better at encouraging members to wear restraints inside their vehicles, eventually someone will require patient care, and personnel will have to stand while rendering aid, Stevens said. He recalled a story about a Baltimore city firefighter who hit his head and compressed his spine while going over a speed bump in a fire truck, ending his career.

“It’s real. Firefighters do get injured in these things,” Stevens said.

But “the most important impact, we feel,” is the effect on response times, he said.

Stevens said national standards put the maximum time to reach a victim who isn’t breathing at four minutes before death occurs. He also said each speed bump encountered by a fire engine generally adds 10 seconds to its response time.

“When lives are at stake, seconds do count,” he said.

Delayed response times also can result in firefighters having to battle more intense flames than if they had arrived on the scene quicker, Stevens said.

“This is weighing two unsafe situations,” commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said. “I mean, vehicle wear and tear is one thing, but I’m really worried about the safety of your being able to respond to a fire or a medical emergency.”

Commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said he had noticed more plastic traffic control devices in Washington, D.C., in recent years.

“They seem to be very effective in residential neighborhoods,” Collins said.

“They’re effectiveness is what we have a problem with,” Stevens said. “It slows people down. It slows us down.”

Stevens said he had spoken to District firefighters, many of whom live in Charles, “and I didn’t find one that was in favor of [the devices].

“Matter of fact, I heard some real war stories” of fire trucks hitting the bumps at high speeds because they were either covered by snow or only marked in one direction.

“We didn’t get to what the damage or the injuries were, but they said it got their attention, for sure,” Stevens said. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a fire or EMS service that’s in favor of these things.”

Kelly suggested holding a public hearing on the program, which Collins called a “good idea.”

“There’s tremendous public interest,” he said.

“I think what’s been made clear is that this is a balancing act,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said. “I think we need more time to digest this whole thing.”

Daugherty said the committee’s recommendations are in line with similar programs across the state, “and they haven’t had any feedback that is negative, except from the fire department and emergency services.”

“It’s hard to go against that, though,” Kelly said.

“That’s why we’re paid the big bucks,” Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) said.

The commissioners asked staff to condense the program’s details so they would be easier for the public to understand at a public hearing.

“This is one of those things where nobody wants people speeding on their street, and it’s very upsetting in all of our communities,” Kelly said. “But when people hear the other side, [that] this could make the difference in terms of someone getting to your home in a major medical emergency, that changes things a bit.”

Kelly said the program would carry costs while only benefiting neighborhoods of a certain density, “and most citizens in Nanjemoy aren’t going to feel real good about that.”

jnewman@somdnews.com