Chief Advocating For Speed Limit Drop On Coastal Highway

OCEAN CITY — In the wake of a difficult summer in terms of pedestrian-vehicle collisions, an effort is underway to potentially lower the speed limit on Coastal Highway in an area of the corridor deemed particularly prone to tragedies.

Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino has initiated an effort to reduce the speed limit on Coastal Highway from 33rd to 62nd streets from the current 40 mph to 35 mph. DiPino sent a memo to the Mayor and Council last week seeking the elected officials’ support for the proposed change. With the blessing of the Mayor and Council, the chief is also sending a letter to State Highway Administration (SHA) District Engineer Donnie Drewer asking for support from SHA for the reduction.

“It is my belief that a reduction in speed through this corridor would reduce the potential severity of risk and injuries to pedestrians,” the chief’s memo to the Mayor and Council reads. “This belief is based on studies that show the risk of a fatality increases exponentially with increased striking vehicle speeds.”

To illustrate the point, DiPino cited a 1997 Department of Transportation study that found 85 percent of pedestrians struck by a vehicle traveling 40 mph will not survive, while just 5 percent of pedestrians struck at 20 mph do not survive.

“I further believe, and studies support, that a reduction in speed increases a driver’s ability to perceive and react to potential hazards (pedestrians) in the roadway and will decrease the stopping distance needed to avoid those same hazards,” the memo continues.

In a draft of the letter to Drewer, DiPino explained a substantial increase in development along Coastal Highway between 33rd and 62nd streets has contributed to the rising number of accidents involving pedestrians.

“As you know, the town of Ocean City has experienced a significant growth in residential and commercial development along the above-mentioned corridor,” the letter to Drewer reads. “This growth and development has increased the amount of pedestrian foot traffic and vehicular trips, which have ultimately led to an increased number of pedestrian-related crashes along this particular segment of Md. 528.”

The proposed speed limit reduction between 33rd and 62nd streets would expand an area of Coastal Highway reduced over a decade ago. In 2000, the speed limit was reduced from 40 to 35 mph from 17th to 33rd streets. The latest proposal would extend the reduced speed limit area from 17th Street to 62nd Street. OCPD spokesman Pfc. Mike Levy said this week studies of the area appear to warrant the proposed reduction.

“The data is showing an increase in pedestrian-vehicle collisions in that area between 33rd Street and 62nd Street,” he said. “Now, it is important to point out speed is not the sole contributing factor. In 60 percent of the collisions, alcohol on the part of the pedestrian has been a factor, but if a speed limit reduction can help avoid some of those collisions, it’s certainly worth exploring along with some of the other initiatives in that area.”

SHA officials conducted their own studies of the corridor from 17th Street to 56th Street and the figures appear to support the proposed speed reduction. According to SHA data, from January 2007 to August 2012, a total of 47 pedestrian collisions and 29 bicycle collisions resulting in five fatalities and 65 injuries were reported.

Forty-two of the crashes were intersection-related, while 39 occurred at night. While none of the bicycle crashes were alcohol-related, a total of 25 of the pedestrian collisions involved alcohol with five drivers and 25 pedestrians under the influence.

No change will take place without the support of the town of Ocean City and its police department, according to SHA Assistant District Engineer Ken Cimino, who has been working closely on the city’s pedestrian safety issue.

“We wouldn’t do anything without the concurrence of the town of Ocean City and the community,” he said. “Any time you reduce speed, you increase reaction time and increase stopping time. We’re very cognizant of the fact the midtown area has seen a huge increase in development, both residential and commercial. We are in agreement a reduction in speed may reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions in that area.”

Cimino said SHA has conducted two traffic studies of the subject area during the summer, one of which was done internally and one with the collaboration of a consultant, and several recommendations have come out of those efforts.

While he couldn’t go into the detail about the proposed recommendations, Cimino said they ran the gamut from the addition of more controlled intersections to a barrier preventing mid-block pedestrian crossings. One of the more extreme proposals, and it’s important to note it’s only a proposal, is a “road diet,” in which a travel lane is taken away to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, for example.

Cimino said he is currently in the process of pulling together a list of names for a potential Pedestrian Safety Committee and is reaching out to residents, business owners and organizations.

“We’re hoping to look at long-term solutions and immediate ideas that can be implemented as soon as next summer,” he said.