Arundel highway claims another victim
Death of girl, 17, adds to toll on deadly Mountain Road
A wreath in autumn colors is placed next to a vacant house on Mountain Road. It is part of a memorial to Kala Marie Austin, 17, who was killed in a single car accident after loosing control of her car and striking the house on Mountain Road near Pinehurst Road. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / October 21, 2011)
Mountain Road in Anne Arundel County, also known as state Route 177, has seen many such memorials in recent decades. At least 20 people — many in their teens or only a little older — have died along the 11-mile stretch since the early 1990s. At least 14 have perished in crashes there in the last decade alone.
In that way, Mountain Road is representative of a class of once-pastoral suburban byways that now bear increasing traffic loads with little room to grow. But few if any are as constricted, busy and harder to bypass than Mountain Road. And for residents of Pasadena's peninsula, there is no practical alternative route.
The State Highway Administration contends the road is no more dangerous than others in the region but also acknowledges that direct comparisons are difficult because of Mountain Road's unusual configuration.
Local officials and residents, however, are certain of its dangers. Virtually all of its victims have been Pasadena residents.
"Without a doubt, for its speed limits and its size, it's ranked up at the top in accidents, especially accidents that lead to personal injury and tragedy," said Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, a Republican who represents the district that includes Pasadena. "Typically, we lose one young life a year on Mountain Road."
Donna Austin, Kala's mother, said she's determined to push for a safer Mountain Road — in particular, the spot near Fairwood Court where her daughter smashed into the side of a building that stands no more than 12 feet from the westbound travel lane.
That structure, little more than a decrepit shack, lies just east of a sharp curve where Kala lost control of her eastbound 2002 Volkswagen Jetta while on her way to Chesapeake High School about 7:30 a.m. on a rainy day. Last week, the path of Kala's car was marked by pink flags leading to a deep dent in the side of the house.
Austin wants to see it torn down.
"I'm just hoping something gets done so another child doesn't get killed down there," said Austin, a former SHA employee who now works for its parent Department of Transportation.
Making Mountain Road safer is a daunting task. While it carries the designation of a state highway, it is for much of its length little more than an overgrown country lane — a relic of the decades during which Anne Arundel County's peninsulas were rural outposts whose shores were lined with fishing shacks and summer cottages rather than waterfront mansions.
Along its path from Ritchie Highway to the Gibson Island gatehouse, Mountain Road passes the entrance to many subdivisions that have sprung up in recent decades, straining the road's capacity with suburban sprawl. State Highway Administration figures show that the section of Route 177 where Kala crashed carries 26,530 vehicles a day.
"This is probably one of those suburbs where you shouldn't have had this density of housing," said Pat Massof, president of the Saybrooke Woods Homeowners Association — representing a neighborhood that depends on Mountain Road.
For much of its length, including some of its most deadly stretches, Mountain Road is essentially a two-lane road with a third, reversible lane shoehorned down the middle to relieve peak-hour congestion. It is lined with countless points of entry and exit to retail parking lots and residential driveways.
Belying the name, there are no mountains or even significant hills along Mountain Road, though there are some sharp curves and tricky intersections. Shoulders are limited or nonexistent along much of the road, forcing bicyclists into the travel lanes. Few accommodations are made for pedestrians, several of whom have been victims of accidents during the past decade.
One of the most striking features of the road is the sheer number of fixed objects just a few feet from the edge of the pavement. Three of the last four known crash-related fatalities have involved single vehicles that hit a tree, a utility pole or — in Kala's case — a building.
Patricia Meley, who lives just up the road from the site of Kala's crash and whose front yard was the site of a crash in 2007 that killed two people, said some residents have installed decorative rocks along the road to protect their homes from being hit.
"There's very little room for error on Mountain Road when a person makes a mistake," said Anne Arundel County police Capt. David Waltemeyer, commander of the Eastern Division.
Midway along the route, limited-access Route 100 with its 55-mph speeds dumps into Mountain Road, which has a 40-mph limit. Farther out the peninsula lies Chesapeake High School, a daily destination for hundreds of drivers who, like Kala, have limited experience behind the wheel.