Data helps agencies analyze, study roads

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story indicated the Baltimore City Department of Transportation does not track incidents on the Jones Falls Expressway (JFX). To clear things up, while data is not tracked by officials at the Baltimore City DOT, officials say the data is provided via the state and analyzed.

In 2011, Baltimore City Police Officer Teresa Rigby fell 30 feet from the Jones Falls Expressway on Interstate 83.

Two years later, a city tow truck driver was knocked 25 feet from the same expressway after attempting to assist in a pair of rush-hour crashes.

And just last November, a man jumped off of the JFX near Gay Street after fleeing from police for his involvement in a two-vehicle crash.

Watch ABC2 News Thursday at 11 p.m. to view our exclusive interview with Teresa Rigby.

In an effort the understand traffic patterns on that stretch of roadway, ABC2 News asked city transportation officials for a breakdown of their accident data.

The data, Baltimore City DOT spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said, is a vital element in making roadways safer.

“We review the data to look at some of the causes of accidents, some of the factors… things that may be involved,” Barnes said.

In addition to analyzing data, Barnes said there are cameras that monitor the JFX all hours of the day, each day of the week. There are also watchers staffed around the clock, making observations and taking notes.

Issues, Barnes said, aren’t always easy to pinpoint – especially with a stretch of highway like the JFX that sees more than 100,000 vehicles each day.

Minimizing incidents means managing highway congestion. Reviewing data, Barnes said, “gives us an indication on how we can make travel better for commuters.”

Among ideas on the table for improving the commuter experience is the potential for special traffic enforcement officers on the JFX. Other ideas, according to Baltimore City Department of Transportation Deputy Director Frank Murphy, include encouraging efforts centered around carpooling and utilizing mass transit.

The more serious incidents, Murphy described, are often fluke occurrences, in which plans of corrective action are difficult to develop.

That’s not to say teams at the Baltimore City Department of Transportation fail to try. In fact, the department believes it does a lot to get people off the road as soon as possible  following incidents.

“Most of what we do is get them off the road fast, and that’s about the best thing we can do,” Murphy said. “…
Any time you’re on a freeway, and not moving, you are in harm’s way.”

Imagine 6,000 cars in an hour per lane. That’s the JFX during rush hour in the peak direction. Murphy said small incidents at those times can yield larger problems.

In 2012 the Baltimore City DOT began utilizing the state’s Move It campaign – a program that places tow trucks on the shoulder of the highway before peak times begin. Solutions like Move It are expected to play more of a role in managing congestion and in turn managing incidents.

Officials at the Baltimore City DOT don’t see rebuilding or making modifications as a solution any time in the near future.

According to published media reports, a study commissioned by former city mayor Sheila Dixon’s administration predicted the life expectancy of the expressway might reach an expiration date in 2050.

Other reports from area developers concluded the life-expectancy for the lower part of the JFX could be sooner.

In the short-term, the city Department of Transportation has opted to keep doing routine maintenance on the expressway, which includes a series of future projects to improve safety.

SHA spokesman David Buck said jurisdiction for roadways has always fallen to different departments within the state.

“It was the way leaders designed it years ago,” he said.

He added that Baltimore City has always maintained their roadways.

Driver error main contributor to incidents

On Wednesday, members of the Maryland Transportation Authority were able to release the number of crashes that occurred on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The accidents were listed in a final report released by the National Transportation Safety Board, which concluded that it was driver error that caused last year's three-vehicle crash that sent Morgan Jade Lake of Sunderland  over the bridge.

Check out the story here.

SHA oversees about 30 percent of Maryland roads every year. Within that mix, there are also local county and city jurisdictions that also maintain their own roadways. 

“For us, that’s 17,000 roads, each with its own unique qualities,” Buck said. “Our engineers make sure to know the differences.”

The JFX is part of the larger I-83 interstate, which connects Baltimore to Pennsylvania.

For nearly 50 years, Baltimore city has maintained jurisdiction from Fayette Street up through Falls Road.

From there, SHA and Maryland State police takeover coverage as I-83 moves into Baltimore County up to the Pennsylvania line.

Buck said when it comes to vehicle accidents, 93 percent are

caused by driver error. Of those crashes, about 500 Maryland residents die a year.

To bring down the death toll, SHA partners with other jurisdictions to teach others about driver safety.

“Our major approach to driver safety is engineering, education and enforcement,” he said. “Education is a very important tool in preventing fatal accidents [and] we devote a lot of time to it.”

Despite educational attempts, Det. Sarah White of the Montgomery County Police, said many drivers just don’t get it.

Distracted driving?

In 2009, White was answering a police call off Interstate 495 when a tractor trailer came toward her and her patrol car.

She quickly realized she couldn’t outrun the oncoming vehicle and made a split decision to get out of the truck’s way.

That decision meant jumping off the bridge of I-495. She broke her back, but was able to make a full recovery.

“This incident reminds me of just how short life can be,” she said. “In many ways, I’m a very lucky person.”

White says she views driving in a different light.

“It’s the distracted driving that really causes roadway fatalities,” she said. “They call them accidents for a reason.”

When driving, White said she regularly sees two common themes: people speeding and driving to closely behind another car.

“I wish we weren’t in such a hurry to get places,” she said. “By taking your time, think about the number of accidents we could prevent.”

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