ASPEN HILL — Montgomery County is taking a step toward meeting its Vision Zero goals with the addition of a high-intensity activated crosswalk (HAWK) beacon in Aspen Hill.
On May 10, county councilmembers, County Executive Marc Elrich and officials from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) activated the HAWK beacon between Georgia and Connecticut Avenues.
“This device is really important for improving pedestrian safety,” said Chris Conklin, deputy director of policy for MCDOT. “Aspen Hill was identified as a priority focus back in 2009, due to a large number of serious and fatal pedestrian collisions.”
Vision Zero is a traffic project that was first created in Sweden in 1997. Its strategy was designed to eliminate all traffic deaths and severe injuries by redesigning roads and traffic patterns to make pedestrians more visible and create safer driving conditions for everyone who uses roadways.
Montgomery County has set a goal to reach zero-traffic deaths and severe injuries by 2030.
According to the county, MCDOT installed the crosswalk in response to concerns from the community.
According to Maren Hill, a senior planner within the Montgomery County Planning Department, since 2015 there have been 151 non-motorist injury crashes in Aspen Hill. During the Vision Zero study of the area, 79 pedestrian injury crashes occurred in the area of study.
The HAWK beacon is located between two blocks of shopping and retail centers. It is placed in the middle of the block, so it is more convenient for residents walking from one shopping center to another.
Crossing mid-block is common and dangerous, especially because vehicles turning into or out of the shopping centers are not alerted to a pedestrian’s presence.
“These mid-block crossings are death traps, you know,” said Michael Paylor who serves as the division chief of MCDOT’s Traffic Engineering and Operations. “We need to have signals and beacons where people are crossing.”
The HAWK beacon includes a regular crosswalk with painted stripes and a signal to tell pedestrians when it is safe to cross, but it also includes lights above the roadway, like a traffic intersection, that regulates traffic flow.
According to MCDOT, HAWK beacons are ideal for mid-block crossings, where traffic volume is too low to warrant a full traffic signal.
When the button is pushed by a pedestrian, flashing yellow lights caution drivers until they transition to red lights, forcing cars to stop.
Elrich explained that without a crosswalk, residents would often drive between the two shopping centers, even though they are very close together and are only separated by four lanes of traffic.
“I really think that the full HAWK signals are important, because they have the red light. It’s not enough to have a flashing light,” Elrich said. “Drivers have shown us repeatedly that they will drive right through a flashing light it’s just a warning, but the red light actually means stop.”
He said that it has taken a long time for the state to recognize Aspen Hill as an area that needs its attention.
Conklin later explained that HAWK signals were prohibited by the state manual of traffic devices because their lights are not always on display. The device flashes only when a pedestrian calls for a walk signal.
The state changed that guideline to allow HAWK devices about a year and a half ago, according to Conklin.
County Council Vice President Sidney Katz, who also serves as the chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, stated just how distracted drivers and pedestrians alike have become.
“Today, when we have the HAWK signal available, which absolutely saves lives, then that’s exactly what we need to (be installing)” he said.
Councilmember Evan Glass, who serves on the council’s Transportation and Environment Committee, was also present at the event. He noted that pedestrian-related incidents in Maryland have been increasing over the past year.
The county describes the HAWK beacons as cost effective and attractive.
The newest HAWK beacon between Georgia and Connecticut Avenues is the fourth installation in Montgomery County, according to MCDOT officials.
The county’s first HAWK beacon was installed back in 2010 on Guide Drive in Rockville. Since then, growth in the area has increased, and the HAWK signal is scheduled to be converted into a full intersection.
According to the county, another beacon is in the design phase for Chevy Chase at Willard Avenue and Hills Plaza.
“I look forward to having more of these installations popping up in Montgomery County and in the state of Maryland; this is important not only for pedestrians but also for automobile drivers. These installations make all of us safe,” Glass said.