Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Muncaster Mill an accident waiting to happen

Neighbors say road where a Gaithersburg man was found dead is a frequent site of near-misses

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Residents of neighborhoods near an intersection of Muncaster Mill Road where a Gaithersburg man was found dead earlier this month say that the narrow, winding road is the frequent site of crashes.

They said they have repeatedly asked county and state officials to increase safety measures near the intersection of Muncaster Mill and Airpark⁄Shady Grove roads.

‘‘That area of Muncaster Mill Road has been dangerous for three decades,” said Bonnie Stidham, a 24-year resident of the Laytonia community and a member of the Board of Directors for the Laytonia Homeowners Association.

From January through September 2007, county police in the 6th District station listed the intersection of Muncaster Mill and Airpark with the fourth most reported traffic collisions in the district, which stretches from Goshen to Montgomery Village to the southern border of Gaithersburg.

There were 25 reported collisions at the intersection in 2007, according to Lucille Baur, a police spokeswoman. An October 2001 traffic study found that about 41,398 vehicles a day passed through the intersection between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Baur said, and the collision rate did not indicate that the intersection was unsafe.

The body of Manuel Antonio Ramirez, 38, was discovered early Jan. 6 in the 7600 block of Muncaster Mill Road near Laytonia. If an autopsy confirms that Ramirez, of the 7400 block of Muncaster Mill Road, was killed after being hit by a vehicle, he will be the first pedestrian fatality in the county this year. The incident is still under investigation, and police expected autopsy results by early next month.

Stidham said that, like other residents of the community, she will not exit her neighborhood via Laytonia Drive, which opens onto Muncaster Mill Road, because of safety concerns that include poor sight distance and lighting, sharp turns, steep hills and drivers frequently exceeding the street’s 35-mph speed limit. Muncaster Mill Road, a portion of Maryland Route 115, stretches between Woodfield and Norbeck roads.

Laytonia residents began advocating for safety improvements to Muncaster Mill when a North Potomac man was killed there in 2001. In that collision, his car was struck by a tow truck that tried to make a sudden stop to avoid hitting a vehicle turning onto Laytonia Drive. Stidham and her neighbors had witnessed similar near-misses and began sharing their concerns with county and state officials, but Stidham said nothing happened.

‘‘I think they saw other areas as being higher priority, despite all the accidents,” Stidham said. ‘‘...I feel really guilty because we stopped pushing. We listened to the bureaucrats, and they said no.” She began contacting officials again after Ramirez’s death.

‘‘Every day we take our lives into our hands,” said resident Angi Wigle, who has also spent years reaching out to officials. ‘‘Turning left [out of Laytonia Drive], we cannot see the traffic coming over the hill, and every day it’s a pray-to-God moment.... It’s the darkest stretch of Muncaster Mill you will find.”

The State Highway Administration, which oversees Muncaster Mill Road, will evaluate the safety of the roadway after county police complete their investigation, which is standard after a fatal crash, said SHA spokesman Chuck Gischler.

‘‘Muncaster Mill Road is one of those roads that are present through the county,” he said last week, noting that about 93 percent of crashes are the result of driver error. ‘‘It’s long, it’s winding and it’s not meant for that kind of [heavy] traffic.”

About 23,000 vehicles travel the 5.8-mile Muncaster Mill Road per day, Gischler said.

The SHA made a series of improvements to the road in 2000 following a crash near Grist Mill Drive. In that crash, equipment from a landscaper’s truck collided with a school bus, killing the bus driver and injuring three students. Two years later at the same spot, a 10-year-old girl suffered minor injuries after another bus driver hit a utility pole after swerving to avoid a car, according to published reports.

About $14 million in improvements have been made to Muncaster Mill in the last eight years, Gischler said, including resurfacing the road, reducing speeds, adding school-crossing flashers, cutting back embankments, trimming brush and improving drainage at various sections of the roadway.

Another issue is the location of a Ride On bus shelter across the street from Laytonia Drive, Stidham said. Drivers often pass stopped buses on the two-lane road, she said, and the stop’s location at the bottom of a hill and poor lighting makes it difficult to spot pedestrians.

It’s a problem that has also been identified by the county. The county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation took an inventory of its 5,400 Ride On and Metro bus stops, and it is systematically evaluating the stops and making necessary safety improvements, according to county spokeswoman Esther Bowring.

‘‘They are really aware of this Laytonia stop,” she said.

Though work has stopped for the winter, Ride On officials will evaluate Muncaster Mill Road in the next two weeks, and, if problems are discovered, the stops will be the county’s first priority when the project starts back up in March, Bowring said.

On Jan. 17, the streetlight next to the bus stop was faint, and the next four lights, located in the 7600 block of Muncaster Mill, were out.

Stidham said she and others will make sure the fixes get made to ensure no one else dies on their road.

‘‘We will not give up this time,” Wigle said.