I’ve been commuting from Annapolis to Baltimore a couple of days a week for several months now. We’ve got traffic in Annapolis, and, sure, sometimes it’s maddening. There was that one time a sailboat mast got caught in a powerline on Forest Drive.

But I have to ask you veteran Baltimore Beltway commuters a question. Is it always this bad? Is it as dangerous as it seems to a new commuter like me?

“I believe that it is, yes,” said Kristy Breslin, morning traffic anchor at WJZ-TV. “Honestly, I think there’s not that many lanes and people are just in a rush. And there’s a lot of ongoing construction and a lot of improvement projects that are coming to fruition right now.”

Breslin’s beat is traffic. She spends every workday figuring out what’s happening out on the roads and then sharing it with viewers to try and improve their commute. She’s not alone in her assessment.

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“That roadway, I have taken from back in the day. … and I would commute and I absolutely hated it,” said Ragina Ali, spokesperson for AAA Maryland. “It was a nightmare then, and to be honest with you, it’s still a very congested highway.”

Some call it Interstate 695, some call it the Baltimore Beltway, or just the Beltway. In 2005, Maryland named it the McKeldin Beltway in honor of the late Theodore McKeldin, a two-term Maryland governor and former Baltimore mayor. Nobody calls it that.

Whatever names you use — and I wouldn’t have used some of them in front of my mother — almost no one likes driving on the Beltway. The same is true for that other Maryland beltway, just down the road near Washington, D.C.

So, when a horrific tragedy happens like the one that killed six construction workers, you should be asking yourself whether this is a safe place to drive. When a tanker truck overturned two days later and burst into flames on the Beltway, it punctuated the question.

The answer is clear: You put your life at risk when you drive on some Maryland highways.

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You may think this is exaggeration. The officials responsible for the Beltway and other roads see the dangers.

In Annapolis, years of crashes and pedestrian fatalities are a fact on Forest Drive. It’s the main route down the Annapolis Neck, a corridor so crowded with expectations for Maryland’s capital city and its neighboring areas that any proposal to build almost anything generates a hue and cry. Anne Arundel County has launched its latest road safety initiative in an effort to make it less likely that someone else gets hurt as they rush up the peninsula in the morning and down again at night.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is so intimidating that Maryland just finished a $58 million project that added swing gates, illuminated pavement, dynamic message boards, and brighter overhead signals in hopes of preventing more drivers from smashing into oncoming traffic.

On the Baltimore Beltway itself, Maryland is working through $261 million worth of improvements. The plan will open 19 miles of inside shoulder for drivers during peak congestion — something that carries its own risks — and rework the eye-watering, triple-bridge overpass at I-70. That single spot was home to six of the top 15 congested road segments in the state when the work was announced in 2017

Does any of that sound like it will solve the problem? There’s this idea called induced demand. Expand roads to accommodate more traffic, and drivers say, “Whee! More open road for me!” Pretty soon, congestion returns.

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In his 2022 campaign for governor, Democrat Wes Moore released a multipage position paper on fixing Maryland transportation. A lot of it was high-concept stuff regarding transit-oriented development, equity to mass transit access and the link between transportation and health.

Then, at the bottom of Page 7, there was this:

“Every person has the right and expectation to travel safely, regardless of mode. Too many families are experiencing the loss of a family member while driving, walking, or biking along our roadways. One death is one too many. In the last three years, there have been over 500 fatalities per year on Maryland roadways. Prince George’s County had the highest number of fatalities in 2021 with 119, and Baltimore City with the second highest at 68.”

I have the suspicion that I drive in the shallow end of the traffic pool on the Beltway, from I-97 to I-95. The road is pocked with crumbled pavement, and bounded by guardrails bent from collisions. Drivers weave across lanes, leaning into the path of least resistance.

Here are some things I learned this week.

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A spokesperson for the Maryland State Highway Administration told me that crashes, disabled vehicles and large-scale debris are leading causes of congestion. For every minute a lane is closed by one of these factors during peak drive times, it takes four minutes for traffic to recover. For each minute, the chance of a secondary crash increases by 2.8%. So if a lane is blocked for 36 minutes, another crash is likely.

The SHA’s CHART program responds to highway incidents, work that it estimates prevents roughly 900 lane-changing crashes and 400 secondary crashes a year.

The Maryland State Police, the lead law enforcement agency on the Beltway, regularly launches initiatives aimed at curbing irresponsible behaviors: distracted driving, drunken driving, aggressive driving and — coming to a lane near you soon, I’ll bet — driving while high on some nice, legal blueberry kush.

After Maryland last fall expanded a 12-year-old law requiring drivers to shift a lane when possible for any vehicle with flashing or warning lights, state police issued 342 citations and 2,060 warnings by March 21. That was one day before the collision involving two vehicles traveling in the same direction at a high rate of speed when one crashed into a construction zone, killing Mahlon Simmons II, 52, and his son, Mahlon Simmons III, 31; Rolando Ruiz, 46; Carlos Orlando Villatoro Escobar, 43; Jose Armando Escobar, 52; and Sybil Lee Dimaggio, 46.

In chatting with drivers this week, I heard again and again how it’s other drivers who are the problem and not the road itself.

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Many violate unwritten rules. Don’t do anything unpredictable. The left lane is for passing or lining up for left-hand exits, not going faster. Beltway driving has a more individualistic style compared to the collective misery of the Capital Beltway rush hour to the south, with its we’ll-all-get-there-eventually-just-not-soon ethos.

Not everyone sees the worst. Tom McConnell has been commuting along the Beltway from Baltimore to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Fort Meade for eight months.

“In the morning, there seems to be a flow,” he said “I’m normally going in at 5:45 to 6 a.m. Everyone knows what they’re doing, even if there is a lot of volume, and respects everyone.”

In the evening, it’s different. It’s not as bad as his previous commute on Route 100, where he says it seemed like drivers used the space to do whatever they wanted to do.

Maybe a lot of what makes any road seem dangerous is the absence of room for error at 82 mph surrounded by three lanes of drivers streaming music, checking Waze for ETA updates and sipping nonfat triple lattes.

Yet you can find scenes of beauty amid the dangerous situations.

Sunrise over the bay from the Beltway near Wilkens Avenue takes McConnell’s breath away some mornings. I’m fascinated with the little park in Linthicum tucked next to the off-ramp from the outer loop to southbound I-97. The flotilla of white sails on impossibly blue water below the eastbound Bay Bridge seems like a God’s-eye view if ever there was one.

And there can be poetry in the daily words used by Breslin and her tribe of traffic journalists: Outer loop, inner loop, topside and “the Beltway is jammed from Harford Road to Dulaney Valley.” Slowdown. Stop-and-go. Headache.

“I try to avoid ‘bumper-to-bumper’ unless I absolutely have to,” she said.

So do we all.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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