While thousands of people crash on the notoriously congested Capital Beltway each year, lethal accidents are clustered in just four dangerous zones, according to an analysis by The Washington Examiner.
The 64-mile long highway is the site of nearly 3,000 accidents a year — about eight a day — and claims the lives of 18 people a year on average, according to a review of data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and transportation officials and police in Virginia and Maryland.
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But not all stretches of the Beltway are equally dangerous.
Fifty of the 58 fatal accidents on the Beltway between 2007 and 2009 occurred on a 27.5-mile stretch that begins just before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Virginia and runs to the intersection of the Beltway and Interstate 95 in the north.
Within that deadly stretch are four spots where fatalities cluster: Twenty deaths have occurred between Ritchie-Marlboro Road and Central Avenue in Prince George’s County. Another dozen have been near the spot where Interstate 95 merges with the Beltway. And nine have happened in the last few miles of highway in Northern Virginia before it crosses the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Nine more are in the vicinity of Branch Avenue.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend likens those stretches of road to the Bonneville Salt Flats, characterizing them as relatively flat and straight segments along an otherwise curving highway that encourage time-conscious drivers to speed up.
“It’s a violent scene,” Townsend said, “and it’s just so much traffic. People are so [exasperated] because it’s just absolute gridlock. People lose their patience and do stupid things.”
The most dangerous locations in Prince George’s are near the entrance and exit ramps, where cars are merging into or trying to pull out of high-speed traffic.
“It makes sense,” Townsend said. “You have to understand that one of the busiest highways in the nation is the I-95 corridor. … If you’re going south or north, at some point you go through that section of road.”
Weather doesn’t appear to be a factor in the Beltway crashes. Fifty-three of the 58 fatal accidents between 2007 and 2009 occurred under clear skies.
Congestion may have played a part in some accidents. Twenty-two of the fatal crashes involved more than one vehicle.
Still, most of the lethal crashes were single-car accidents, indicating that fast speeding drivers, drunk drivers, distracted drivers — those talking on the phone while driving, for instance — and motorists who are just plain weary are the chief cause of accidents, according to John Saunders, director of Virginia’s Highway Safety Office. Most fatal accidents occurred between midnight and 4 a.m., the traffic data show.
In Montgomery County in Maryland and on the western side of the Beltway running through Northern Virginia, where the roadway curves more sharply and more often, traffic is slowed and there are far fewer fatal crashes, records show.
Data indicate that while the number of accidents each year has slightly declined, fatalities and injuries on the Beltway remained steady from 2000 to 2009. I-495 averaged 2,876 crashes each year in the time span, with 2,878 crashes in 2009, down from the 3,191 that occurred on the highway in 2000.
However, an average of 18 deaths occurred on the road each year, including 20 in 2009, up from the 13 that occurred in 2000.
At the Maryland State Police barracks in Forestville and College Park, whose officers patrol the Beltway from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the Montgomery County line, the number of speed citations issued each year since 2007 has gone up and down in proportion to the number of fatalities — the more fatal crashes there are, the more citations are issued.
But in 2009, officials began taking an aggressive approach under the direction of Capt. Clifford Hughes. The state police reorganized enforcement efforts by placing more officers on the highway between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Thursday to Sunday, times when records show fatal crashes most often occur.
The targeted enforcement shows signs of success. Police reported only three fatalities on the Beltway in Prince George’s in 2010.