OCEAN CITY — Against the backdrop of the new median fence, local and state officials this week took the opportunity to hammer home the highly successful Walk Smart pedestrian safety campaign.
After a rash of fatal pedestrian collisions about five years ago, Ocean City and the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) launched an aggressive education and enforcement campaign aimed at reducing incidents. For the last five years, the Walk Smart campaign has included more marked pedestrian crossings at intersections along Coastal Highway, increased signage, road markings and other physical improvements.
The most significant and most visible infrastructure improvement to date, however, has been the dune-style fence down the center median of Coastal Highway in a roughly three-mile section from Convention Center Drive to 62nd Street. The $8.4 million project, paid for with state and federal funding, was completed just before Memorial Day weekend.
It was against the backdrop of the new median fence in an historically troublesome section of Coastal Highway near 49th Street where local and state officials kicked off the Walk Smart program for the 2018 summer season on Tuesday morning. Mayor Rick Meehan said the campaign began six years ago with an aggressive public outreach campaign and culminated with engineering projects such as the median fence designed to encourage pedestrians to use the crosswalks.
“It’s amazing to see how much has been done here in five short years,” he said. “When we talk about pedestrian safety, we talk about the three E’s and that included education, engineering and enforcement. This started five years ago with education.”
The Walk Smart program has included an aggressive awareness campaign aimed at urging pedestrians to use the designated crosswalks while urging motorists to increase their awareness of pedestrian traffic. As a result, the iconic Walk Smart cartoon crab has been plastered on signs, buses, drink coasters and hotel room placards urging visitors to follow the rules of the road.
Two years ago, the cartoon crab was officially named Cheswick after a social media poll and Cheswick is now a fixture on the resort landscape, appearing on the beach, Boardwalk and anywhere else large crowds gather to continue to reinforce the pedestrian safety message. Cheswick the Walk Smart Crab was named for Matthew Cheswick, a Maryland teen tragically killed while crossing Coastal Highway in 2012.
Meehan said the new median fence was symbolic of the partnerships that have made the Walk Smart campaign a success.
“When you look at this fence, it’s an example of what can be accomplished when we all work together,” he said. “Public safety is our number one priority. We want people to arrive here safely, be safe when they are here and return home safely.”
While the 2018 summer season has been slow to jump-start with rainy weather and cool temperatures, the crowds are arriving and the median fence is already showing evidence of achieving the desired results, according to Meehan.
“This fence is successfully funneling people to the crosswalks where they are supposed to be,” he said. “It’s going to make it safer for everybody. It’s a commitment and it’s very important for our community. There will be some adjustment with the fence, but it’s going to make everybody safer.”
Maryland State Highway Administrator Greg Slater was on hand for Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting for the new median fence. Slater said the project represented MDOT’s commitment to continually improving pedestrian safety in Ocean City.
“Whether you’re a pedestrian, cyclist, driver or pedestrian-resident or visitor- we want you to be safe on the roadways,” he said. “That’s why we’re excited to continue our partnership with the town of Ocean City to enhance infrastructure and continue our Walk Smart campaign to remind everyone that there is no vacation from the basic rules of the road.”
After a three-year stretch from 2013 to 2015 with no pedestrian fatalities, there were two in Ocean City last year. Pedestrian collisions are somewhat inevitable in a resort with millions of visitors interacting with traffic on essentially an eight-lane highway, but Slater said the goal is always zero.
“In 2017, there was an increase in pedestrian fatalities by two, which is unacceptable,” he said. “The only acceptable number is zero.”
Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Chief Ross Buzzuro reiterated Slater’s message.
“Summer is in full swing and there are hundreds of pedestrians walking up and down Coastal Highway,” he said. “The goal is to keep every single one of them safe. I am confident this fence will have an impact on pedestrian collisions. This has historically been a tough section for us.”
Buzzuro said most pedestrian collisions can be avoided by simply using the crosswalks and adhering to the tenets of the Walk Smart program.
“Every time the rules of the road are followed, another tragedy is prevented,” he said. “We can’t underscore that enough.”
Buzzuro said with the arrival of June and the onslaught of thousands of young visitors, the importance of the Walk Smart message cannot be overstated.
“One of the toughest things I have to do as an officer is tell a parent that their child has been injured in a traffic incident,” he said. “The median fencing is a welcome positive guide that directs pedestrians to the crosswalks-the safest place for people to cross eight lanes of Coastal Highway. Pedestrian safety is still a two-way street and we will continue to enforce traffic laws for drivers as well as pedestrians.”