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The Science of the City: The county’s deadliest road

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Posted on: May 11, 2023

By Paul Ruffins

Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and professor of curiosity.

Note: My first installment in this series on traffic safety and pedestrian injuries looked at fatality on a road that was recently upgraded to incorporate a number of safety measures. This second article discusses the deadliest road in the DMV. 

Prince George’s County has the highest annual rate of pedestrian deaths and injuries in the DMV — roughly 12 per 100,000 residents. Statewide averages in Virginia and Maryland are three to four fatalities per 100,000, and the District’s average is about six. Locally, several stretches of Kenilworth Avenue and University Boulevard are particularly dangerous. These streetscapes are densely lined with stores, restaurants and apartment buildings and have streams of pedestrians trying to cross multiple lanes of typically heavy traffic. 

But Indian Head Highway (Route 210), the road AAA cites as the deadliest in Maryland, doesn’t fit that description at all. On most of its 21-mile stretch, it is a multilane divided highway notched straight through a rural forest of tall trees. Constructed by the federal government before and during WWII, it served as a military transport route between the District and the naval station at Indian Head (now known as Naval Support Facility Indian Head). Over time, the area expanded rapidly. “That’s exactly the problem,” said Rev. Robert Screen, facilitator of the Route 210 Traffic Safety Committee, a group of concerned residents. “This isn’t a rural area anymore. [Route] 210 runs right through the communities of Accokeek, Fort Washington and Forest Heights. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, five motorists and five pedestrians died on this road in 2022 alone.” 

 Most major highways in the DMV — the Beltway, Montgomery County’s I-270, Virginia’s I-66 — are limited-access roads with interchanges (often cloverleafs) that allow for reasonably safe traffic flow. In contrast, Route 210 has stoplight-regulated intersections, some of which are relatively obscured by trees. 

“When I was a kid, I was taught to walk against traffic and wear light clothes at night. Unfortunately, many pedestrians around here ignore that advice,” said Ron Weiss, who used to head the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council. Weiss and Screen have been lobbying to improve Route 210 for years. “But our worst problem is speed,” Weiss added. Indeed, at one intersection dozens of swerving skidmarks stand as clear evidence that many drivers have made panic stops to avoid running the light. One camera clocked a car going 128 in a 55 mph zone. In February 2023, 12 drivers exceeded 100 mph, and a speed camera on Route 210 in Fort Washington recorded a car going over 170 mph.

“Those are killing speeds,” Screen said. “Those drivers deserve a felony conviction for being willing to deliberately risk other people’s lives.” He accepts the rapid development around Route 210 as a fact of life and said that residents have pushed the state and county for the funds to redesign five particularly dangerous intersections. So far, only one has been upgraded. “Right now,” he said, “the only answer is greater enforcement, and getting that hasn’t been easy.” Lack of funding at both the state and county levels is part of the problem. 

Even getting the highway’s six speed cameras turned into a major legislative battle, due to a Maryland law limiting camera use on state roads; the law allows cameras only near schools or temporary construction zones. A 2018 exception to this law allowed installation of a single camera on Route 210. The state legislature authorized the addition of two more cameras in 2019 and then another three  in 2023, for a total number of six.

The cameras on Indian Head Highway appear to have a limited impact, though. The 210 Safety Traffic Committee reported that due to technical difficulties, only 38% of drivers photographed speeding were issued citations. In December 2022, cameras caught 21 drivers traveling 90 to 99 mph and 10 drivers doing over 100, but none received a citation. Weiss wonders if ticketing those drivers would have even made a difference. “The cameras go off if you exceed 11 mph over the limit. So if you’re going 67 mph, you’re going to get a $40 ticket. But if you’re going 100, you’re going to get the same ticket, which isn’t enough to slow down the people who love to drive that fast.” Screen also pointed out difficulties in addressing the issue: “When we tried to get the state legislature to raise the fines to $500, which would deter a lot more speeders, we got a lot of pushback.” 

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