Sign up for our free newsletter
It was raining. A deep thunder grumbled and gray clouds heaved a shower onto William and Yvonne Lanier as they scurried into their car. They were eager to pick up their apricot-colored poodle puppies, Bonnie and Clyde, from Chichie’s Canine Design in Georgetown. Just a few minutes before, at around 8:45 p.m. on June 23, Yvonne Lanier, 59, an employee of the D.C. Department of Health, had phoned up Chichie Tascoe, the groomer, and told her they were on their way.
William Lanier, 67, an art professor retired from the University of the District of Columbia, got behind the wheel of their Mercedes-Benz, while his wife sat shotgun. They pulled away from their home at the 2600 block of Moreland Place NW and made their way to Georgetown. By way of Rock Creek Park roads.
If that Tuesday night seemed slightly ominouswith the storm’s guttural bass interrupted only by a sudden crack! of lightningthe rain was really nothing out of the ordinary: While some counties reported flash flooding, other areas remained relatively dry. But when it rains in the park, Broad Branch Road NWthe road the Laniers took on their way to Chichie’scollects water like a canal. Many experienced drivers avoid it altogether whenever there’s even a hint of precipitation.
The Laniers never saw it coming. Near the crossing of Broad Branch and Beach Drive, their car hit a large puddle, hydroplaned into a tree, bounced off it, and plunged into Rock Creek.
Fed by the heavier rains in Maryland, the normally tranquil Rock Creek was a small, angry rapid that night, and it carried the Mercedes about one-fifth of a mile downstream, under and through two bridges.
When D.C. traffic and homicide cops showed up on the scene later that night, the car’s clock had stopped at 10:10, and William Lanier’s body was “half in and half out through the passenger window,” according to traffic division Capt. Charles Moore. Lanier had severe chest trauma, a broken nose, and no pulse. He was dead.
His wife was nowhere to be found.
At first, the cops didn’t even know she’d been in the car. But after a few days of trying and failing to reach herand after reconstructing William Lanier’s final hoursthe investigating officers realized that Yvonne had probably been in the crash as well. After a week of searching the area and not finding her anywhere, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) called Bill Stanton of Search & Rescue Dogs of Maryland. On July 1, Stanton came with his 4-year-old German shepherd, Winnie, who is trained to pick up both human scents and the odor of gases emitted from decomposing bodies.
Winnie needed just over an hour to find Yvonne Lanier. Her corpse had gotten jammed into underbrush one-third of a mile downstream from where her husband’s body was found. Since it had been sitting pretty much out in the sun for a week, there was a great deal of decay. It wasn’t a pretty sight, according to the men who found her.
The Laniers’ accident “might be just the fault of nature,” MPD spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile says of the accident. “People don’t realize sometimes how strong the water on roadways can be.”
The Laniers may have been in the dark about how deadly the roads near Rock Creek can be, but it was no mystery to the park’s proprietor, the National Park Service. In April 1997, Robert Peccia & Associates, a Montana-based transportation consulting firm, had presented the Park Service with a traffic safety study of the Rock Creek Park roadswhich include Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway (the full name of Rock Creek Parkway), Beach Drive, Broad Branch Road, and all the associated winding streets within the park grounds. Peccia & Associates had found what cops who work the creek already knew: Beautiful, verdant Rock Creek Park is the most dangerous place in the city to operate an automobile.
Peccia & Associates specifically cited 11 “high-accident locations” of the Rock Creek Park system that needed changes. One of these intersections was that of Broad Branch Road and Beach Drive NW, which the study cited as missing several signs and being particularly dangerous because “the curved nature” of the roads in the intersection makes it difficult to determine who has the right of way. The Peccia study suggested five short-term improvements to that intersection, at a total cost of $7,300. A year later, Yvonne and William Lanier went through that very stretch on the way to their death, but none of the improvements had been made. They still haven’t.
Like a lot of serious problems in the District, the safety improvements on Rock Creek roads are locked behind a logjam of burgeoning needs and shrinking funding. The Park Service, which has domain over the roads and would spearhead any improvements, is just as bereft as the city, if not more so.
The Peccia & Associates studiesboth the traffic safety study issued in April 1997 and a more general transportation study from March 1997recommend millions of dollars’ worth of improvements, some as basic as added signage, others as complex as building a bridge. It’s difficult to read the reports’ conclusions without becoming at least somewhat alarmed.
“Compared to the other area parkways, [Rock Creek roadways are] definitely the worst from an accident-severity standpoint,” says Douglas Widmayer, the senior transportation consultant with Peccia & Associates who conducted the analyses of the Rock Creek roadways. Despite recent tragedies on East-West Highway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and despite the Washington Post’s July 11 headline proclamation that “Pr. George’s Roads Still Most Dangerous in Area,” it is actually leafy, tranquil Rock Creek Park that drivers should fear most.
Prince George’s County’s approximate 1,500 miles of roads and highways provide the setting for far more accidents in terms of sheer numbers, but your odds of surviving a car trip on P.G. County roads are statistically greater than your odds traveling on the 2.6 miles of Rock Creek Parkway. And the other 18 miles of roads within the boundaries of the park, the northern Rock Creek roadsBeach Drive, Broad Branch Road, and so onaren’t much safer.
In 1996, P.G. County road tragedies earned the county a record of 1.45 fatal accidents per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled (acc/100mvmt). Peccia & Associates put the fatality accident rate for the 2.6 miles of Rock Creek Parkway at 1.6 acc/100mvmt. The northern Rock Creek roads have an only slightly lower rate of fatal accidents: 1.3 acc/100mvmt. As a gauge, consider Montgomery County’s rate of 0.77 acc/100mvmt, or Fairfax County’s rate of 0.5. Some of those people racing in for that 9 a.m. meeting from Montgomery County by way of Rock Creek might want to think about those figures.
Park officials say a comparison with other roads is unfair, that the Rock Creek roads should be compared only with other parkways. But Rock Creek roads profile just as bloody against other parkways: In 1995, the general accident rate for the 2.6 miles of Rock Creek Parkway4.94 accidents per million vehicle-miles traveledwas higher than those of the Baltimore-Washington, George Washington Memorial, and Suitland Parkways combined.
The Peccia studies that documented Rock Creek roads’ deadly tendencies were commissioned as part of the National Park Service’s work on the General Management Plan, a report to be issued this November that will suggest “what direction Rock Creek Park [as a whole] will take,” according to Rock Creek Park Superintendent Adrienne Coleman. “And a major issue will be traffic management.” But until that report comes out, the changes Peccia & Associates suggested more than a year ago remain in binders, not work orders.
It is unclear, in fact, if the Park Service will institute any of the recommended changes. Coleman places the lion’s share of the blame on the “excessive speed and aggressiveness of drivers”even though the Peccia & Associates studies indicate that speed is only part of the problem. According to the Park Service’s own consultants, unless and until the Park Service makes a number of serious and costly adjustments, the flourishes that make a drive through Rock Creek Park magicalsubmersion in nature, playful curves, and dark country-road feelwill ensure that it remains D.C.’s version of Death Valley.
Four times each weekday, members of the U.S. Park Police motorcycle unit begin an exercise that is insane on its face: Using nothing more than wooden barricades, they transform a section of the two-way Rock Creek Parkway into a one-way southbound commuter route. In order for the wooden barricades to have cut off all pesky northbound commuters by 7:00 a.m., the task must begin at 6:25 a.m. By 9:15 a.m., the four officers on the job have to reverse the process, restoring two-way travel. Then they do it all over again for the evening commute, forcing the designedly two-way parkway into a single northbound flow.
It’s dangerous duty. In the last few months, according to Park Police Lt. Robert Kass, commander of the motorcycle unit, two motorcycle officers have been seriously injured in their cattle-herding-like efforts to lead the crowds of commuters. One April morning, during a rainstorm, Motorcycle Officer Robert Hrdlicka had to veer off the road and lay down his bike in order to avoid hitting a taxicab head on. His injuries kept him out of work for two months. In June, during another wet rush hour, Motorcycle Officer Billy Strathman’s bike wiped out trying to avoid another caba lane marker punctured his rear tire. No cops have been killed in remaking the road every morning and afternoon. “Generally, we’ve been pretty lucky,” says Kass.
According to Kass, many of the commuters are downright nuts. “When you’re changing [the direction], people still come by the barricades,” he says. “Peoplebelieve it or notjust ignore them. People will actually get out of the carafter an officer puts a barricade out thereand move it. They say their watch is right, and the officer’s is wrong.” Kass has trouble understanding the mind-sets of these aggressive drivers. After all, he says, “these aren’t criminals, they’re just commuters and tourists.”
Superintendent Coleman says it is the hyper-hurried commuters who have turned Rock Creek into a kind of rolling cemetery. “What we picked up from the transportation study is that we do have a lot of commuter traffic,” she says. “And one of the biggest problems we have is excessive speeds and aggressive driving.”
Coleman’s quickness to blame commuters makes it sound as if they have the run of the placeand they more or less do, according to Peccia & Associates. “Although the U.S. Park Police actively patrol park roads, their presence has a limited effect on vehicle driving speeds,” the Peccia & Associates traffic safety study notes. “Speed studies conducted in the Park and on the Parkway show that the drivers using these facilities totally disregard the posted speed limit….It is clear that the current methods used by the U.S. Park Police are not effective in controlling the undesirable and unsafe driving habits of aggressive urban commuters who frequent Park roads. A more aggressive program of speed violation enforcement is needed if the posted speed limit is to be effective.”
Park Police officials argue that they are doing all they can with limited resources on a confining terrain, though Sgt. Dave Mulholland acknowledges that limited manpower means that “on some days, there could be no one out there.” Park Police Capt. Henry A. Berberich says that even enforcing traffic laws in Rock Creek Park is hazardous duty. “There are not a lot of places to safely work radar”: few locales for Park Police to monitor speeds, even fewer shoulders on which to pull drivers over.
Since the Peccia & Associates study was completed, Rock Creek’s safety record has improved, Kass says. “Since 1995, accidents in generaland personal injury accidentshave decreased. The last ‘fatal’ on the parkway was in 1997. It’s dangerous, but I think the presence of the officers helps. They slow the drivers down.” Kass says he’d like to do more, but “like any police agency, we’re short people. We’re supposed to have 26 officers, but right now I only have 19.”
Whether or not the motorcycle division is ever fully manned, Peccia & Associates regards the twice-daily changing of direction of the roadwayswhich has been going on since 1937as, at the very least, a questionable allocation of both manpower and cash. “The directional operation of the Parkway costs approximately $450,000 each year,” the traffic safety study says. “It is recommended that this practice be thoroughly evaluated for discontinuation.”
The Park itselfwithout the parkwaywas established on Sept. 27, 1890, as a pastoral sanctuary from the stinky, humid confines of downtown D.C. A generation later, in 1913, Congress authorized the creation of the parkway roads, though construction wasn’t completed until 1936. The first federally authorized parkway, Rock Creek Parkway was designed for leisurely Sunday drivesnobody ever envisioned that massive suburbs in Montgomery County would turn it into the Grand Prix every morning and evening, with speeds approaching 65 mph. Rock Creek roads were completed before America’s love affair with the car even got to first base.
“The characteristics of Rock Creek Parkway accentuate driving errors,” says Mulholland. Although he notes that “people in general exceed the speed limit” on every roadway, Mulholland allows that the characteristics of Rock Creek make a heavy foot on the gas pedal especially dangerous. Unlike on the George Washington Memorial and Baltimore-Washington Parkways, opposing lanes of traffic on most of the Rock Creek system aren’t separated by any land, or even a median. “The only thing separating [opposing lanes of traffic] is a double yellow line,” Mulholland says.
Also, whereas GW and B-W are fairly straight shots, Rock Creek Parkway is a veritable roller-coaster of helter-skelter turns, with more twists than a David Mamet screenplay. “There are two really good hairpin turns up [on Beach Drive],” says Berberich. “You can combine that with a lack of lighting, and you have accidents.”
A number of District residents think solving Rock Creek’s bloody problem is a simple matter: Get rid of the cars. Plenty of people who use the park recreationallyhiking in its 1,754 acres of forest, jogging on its sidewalk paths, skating or cycling on the sections of Beach Drive closed to cars on weekends and holidayshave long suggested that cars and a nature preserve don’t go well together. Rick Morgan, a board member of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association and coordinator of the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek, says that he has been trying to get the Park Service to keep some of the northern stretches of Beach Drive off-limits to cars all the time. “The design for Beach Drive is about 8,000 cars a day,” he says. “It’s a narrow two-lane road. But right now it’s getting about 24,000 cars a day.”
On a clear, dry day, Rock Creek can elicit white knuckles on the most competent driver. And what seems barely manageable under the best of conditions can be chaos at other timesjust add water. “You get a nice little shower or something, and people are used to driving in excess of the speed limitthat’s probably one of our major contributors to accidents,” Mulholland says. “People need to watch their speed limits to begin with…but if it’s raining, the common-sense thing to do would be to reduce your speed.”
“You learn that in driver’s ed,” says National Park Service Communications Officer Earle Kittleman.
“You’re supposed to,” Mulholland counters.
But something about the park turns us all into Mario Andrettiand it’s a bad location to suddenly take up Formula One racing. We didn’t need Peccia & Associates to tell us that “in most areas of the Park the [speed driven by 85 percent of the cars] is at least 10 miles above the posted speed limit.”
The speedy anarchy may stem in part from a lack of guidance. The traffic safety study notes that a “significant number of signs [are] missing from the system.” It details specific instances where signs are neededincluding sudden curves that call for advance warning signs, areas that require “Slippery when wet” alerts, and a number of locations where vegetation hides any traffic guidance at all.
It won’t be just a quick fix. Peccia & Associates lists a number of tangible physical changes that need to be made: $349,350 worth of short-term improvements and $4,230,000 worth of longer-term projects. Widmayer says that these changes must be implemented. “The statistics speak for themselves,” he says.
Sometimes, the park itself lashes out, and nothingno man, no decision, no volume of commuterscan be blamed.
Rock Creek roads, after all, stream through a national parka lush ecosystem in a green valley with wildlife and shaded woods that on a good day recalls Costa Rica. Tulip poplars reach higher than 100 feet into the sky; some of the white oaks are between 100 and 150 years old. Hundreds of elm, beech, and sassafras trees fill the forest like sentries, while sycamores spring near the creek. Rock Creek originates in Laytonsville, Md., and winds 33 miles until it reaches the Potomac River right down by the Kennedy Center.
The meadows, swamps, and deciduous forests provide homes for thousands of animals: white-tailed deer, red and gray foxes, opossums. Supposedly, the park has the highest-density raccoon population in the country. Bird watchers come to the park each May to catch a glimpse of migrating warblers, and during the rest of the year to see the other 25 or so species of birdsincluding cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, tufted titmice, two types of woodpeckers, and four types of owls.
These gifts that make Rock Creek a treat, a wonder, a delight to buzz through on a bike, also make it a rotten place to drive. When it rains, the road itself can become a river, made all the more slick by the leaves that drift down and accumulate.
Five years ago, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the president and CEO of WETA public television and radio, found out what happens when Rock Creek Park gets mad.
At around 7:30 on the evening of May 13, 1993, having just left a budget meeting that had gone on longer than expected, the then-48-year-old wife of West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller was exhausted and eager to get home. After Bob Kelly, her driver, pulled her Cadillac Seville up to the station’s Shirlington office, Rockefeller ran through the rain and slid into the back seat. “There are storms, and then there are storms,” she would later say. “This was a bad storm, but it didn’t occur to me not to go home.”
Rockefeller busied herself with papers and projections, deficits and debits, while Kelly negotiated their way back to her Northwest home. She’d been in love with Rock Creek Park ever since she first had arrived in D.C., in 1965, as a Stanford in Washington intern. Even back then she would spend weekends driving up and down what she calls “the most beautiful urban park in America.”
As they traveled north, just past the Massachusetts Avenue exit, Rockefeller heard a shocking metal thunk! as a tree fell onto the roof of her car. The car’s tires screeeeech!ed, and the driver’s airbag inflated into Kelly; Rockefeller was caught in a tug of war as she was pulled forward by physics and back by her seat belt. The competing forces wrung her body, cracking three ribs and collapsing one
of her lungs.
She was terrified. Traffic was so jammed up it took the ambulance an hour and a half to get to Rockefeller, extricate her from the Caddy, and take her to Georgetown University Medical Center. Days passed before doctors were able to tell her that she would survive without any serious damagethough it would take time and months of work in rehab. She stayed at the hospital for two weeks, in bed at home for two months, away from work for a year and a half.
The Rock Creek roads have “some hazards that some major thoroughfares don’t have,” Rockefeller says. “And they’re caused by its beauty. The same trees that give it serenity and beauty can be quite lethal.” These trees, she thinks, may not be rooted as securely as others. “I think that soil is very sandy; you can see the root systems,” she says. When bad weather hits, “it becomes a wind tunnel in there. It seems that Rock Creek is affected more often than other areas of metropolitan Washington.”
Still, like many of us, Rockefeller continues to take this town’s most scenic risk. “I still [use it] every day,” she says. “It is my main access road. The best one. The closest, the fastest, certainly the prettiest. And probably the most dangerous.” On the night of July 21 of this year, in fact, after leaving a WETA volunteer-appreciation party, Rockefeller saw the driver three cars in front of her narrowly escape being hit by another falling tree. “The road was blocked for over an hour this time,” she says.
Widmayer walks the fine line between advocating change and refusing to bash the National Park Servicea clientfor not even beginning to implement the potentially life-saving recommendations he made a year and a half ago. “The reality is that changes cost money, and they take time to implement, and they do require decisions to be made,” he says. “For one thing, management has to come to grips with what is being recommended….We don’t live in a perfect world.
“All I can do is recommend,” he says. “I give them my professional opinion and give it over to them, and the ball’s in their court….I sit in the meeting, and it’s frustrating.”
Widmayer’s an expert not only on roads, but also in dealing with the federal government, having conducted traffic safety work for the National Park Service for 15 years in 25 different states and 45 different parks. The plate-tectonics pace of Rock Creek Park’s bureaucracy doesn’t surprise him. “We still are working with a government agency, for crying out loud,” he says. While it’s easy to argue that the $7,300 in recommended improvements to the intersection of Beach Drive and Broad Branch Road is petty cash compared with, say, the lives of the Laniers, Widmayer knows that the Park Service has a tough time getting appropriations coffers to open up. “Even 7,300 bucks is 7,300 bucks that they don’t have,” he says. “It’s not nearly as simple as perhaps you’re portraying it to be….I think they’re taking it seriously, but nothing happens instantaneously with the government.”
Park Superintendent Coleman refuses to say which, if any, changes the Park Service will recommend in its November draft report of the General Management Plan for Rock Creek. “We’ll be looking at traffic-calming devices,” she says. “Rumble strips, traffic lights, stop signs, better lighting.” She refuses to discuss Widmayer’s specific recommendations”I don’t want to get ahead of the General Management Plan,” she says.
She doesn’t seem to take the commuting casualties seriously. “You can read statistics any number of ways,” Coleman says of Rock Creek Parkway’s high fatal-accident rate.
And Coleman doesn’t see Rock Creek “as a dangerous place to drive….All roads can be dangerous, especially when speeding is a major problem.” According to her, Peccia & Associates transportation consultants “have made recommendations to correct some minor problems.”
My ’86 Acura Integra is hit with a light drizzle on April 7, 1995, as I make an evening drive to a party in Northern Virginia. It’s one of those beautiful, damp spring evenings we Washingtonians are treated to before we get slapped with summer humidity, so I roll the windows down and put my wipers on blink. Dave Matthews’ “What Would You Say?”still a relatively new songblasts from WHFS. All is right with the world as I make my way down Tilden Street NW and turn right onto Beach Drive.
I’m not that familiar with this patch of road, but I’m not speeding and not worried. What could go wrong? I’ve never heard of Douglas Widmayer, or Peccia & Associates, or Superintendent Adrienne Coleman, and I’m certainly clueless about the presence, much less the name, of the danger zone the Peccia traffic safety report lists as Site 6Bluff Bridge Curve.
I don’t know it, of course, but I’m about to become a statistic in the Peccia & Associates study. I’m about to cause one of the 15 accidents that take place on Bluff Bridge Curve between 1993 and 1995.
“Vehicles run off the road under wet pavement conditions,” Widmayer will later write, citing the traffic safety problems of Bluff Bridge Curve. “The curve is tighter than adjacent curves. This section of road is dark due to the full canopy of trees. There is no delineation or warning of the curve.”
The road turns left and then, all of a sudden, veers sharply right. My car, on the other hand, refuses to heed my steering wheelit hydroplanes for yards and yards, as if I’m riding an air hockey puck.
A car in the oncoming lane of traffic suddenly appears and barrels right for me.
There is the severest of clunky metal sounds as car crashes into car. I’m thrown forward, thenas my car bounces back, every action having an equal and opposite reactionbackward. My car rolls into the curbthe front is mashed into a third of what it was, as if it were constructed from cardboard.
I manage to remove myself from my seat belt and, wheezing, I spill onto the road. Other cars have stopped. I crawl to the shoulder and collapse onto my back. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that the other driver is fine.
It takes the ambulance an hour to get to me. I’m strapped to a stretcher and rushed to Georgetown University Medical Center. Though blood in my urine indicates some internal bleeding, and I end up suffering from insomnia for months, the only permanent damage the accident leaves is a teeny scar on my forehead.
Widmayer recommends changes to Bluff Bridge Curve to make it safer. He wants vegetation cut; he says chevron (>) signs need to be installed and spaced evenly “so that at least two signs are visible on each approach to the curve.” He wants the “Slippery when wet” sign north of the Bluff Bridge Curve to be placed further north; he wants there to be a “Slippery when wet” sign south of the curve.
Fittingly, Widmayer suggests that the Park Service “[c]onduct a pavement skid resistance test at this site. If the pavement is found to have an unacceptable skid resistance, then the pavement should receive a chip seal type overlay.” He notes that “53 percent of all accidents [at Bluff Bridge Curve] occurred on wet road surfaces.” Apparently Bluff Bridge Curve may be, for whatever reason, more slippery than the average road.
A few days later, I drive to a car morgue in Maryland to retrieve the belongings from my totaled Acura.
“You’re one lucky sonofabitch,” the attendant says.
Two years after my accident, Widmayer will present his traffic safety study to the National Park Service. The total cost of his proposed recommendations to make Bluff Bridge Curve safer amounts to $5,600. They have yet to be implemented, and it’s unclear if they ever will.CP