County spends millions on safety programs

Fatal pedestrian collisions in Montgomery County have almost doubled in the first six months of 2013 from all of 2012, despite the county spending millions of dollars to promote pedestrian safety.

County statistics show 11 pedestrians have died since the beginning of this year, a number officials say is concerning since pedestrian fatalities for 2012 totaled six.

Montgomery County Police Department Capt. Tom Didone said the county has spent millions on pedestrian safety initiatives and stings citing pedestrians and drivers for breaking the law. Despite these efforts, Jeff Dunckel, pedestrian safety coordinator with the county's Department of Transportation, said the high number of fatalities in 2013 shows the county has to do more.

Dunckel said the county has spent about $5 million a year since 2010 on pedestrian safety initiatives.

"There's clearly work that needs to be done," he said.

One of the most recent deaths occurred when a 52-year-old woman was struck as she was standing on a median on Veirs Mill Road near Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. A vehicle climbed onto the curb at about 9 a.m. on May 16, after being hit in a lane of traffic.

The high number of fatalities is surprising to officials, especially since police have promoted pedestrian safety aggressively in schools.

But Tina Slater, president of the nonprofit Action Committee for Transit, says the county is placing too much blame on pedestrians and isn't educating drivers enough.

"They are targeting areas where pedestrians are the problem," she said. "Drivers always have the advantage, because they're in ... vehicles. ... It seems to me you would really want to focus on the drivers."

Dunckel said officials are trying to figure out ways to better educate drivers, as well. Didone pointed out police are doing stings where undercover officers are crossing the street and seeing who doesn't yield and ticketing drivers. But both agree the county needs to work on more driver-focused initiatives.

Dunckel brought up one problem -- parking lots -- that has caused an increase in fatalities and pedestrian crashes. On June 2, an 81-year-old woman died after being struck by a car in a Giant Food parking lot in Potomac. Dunckel said parking lot crashes attributed to an increase in overall pedestrian-car collisions to 423 in 2012, from 399 in 2011.

Officials said they are also cracking down in school areas where there are high volumes of pedestrians in the morning and afternoon. Since the beginning of the year, at least six pedestrians have been hit near schools, including two children and their mother who were struck by a car while on the sidewalk near Gaithersburg Elementary School in March.

Police Sgt. James Whalen said that for the 2012-13 school year police have issued 839 citations near schools, with speeding being the biggest problem.