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George Washington Parkway: Safe to Drive?

Victims blame speed, police cite human error as cause of parkway accidents.

Mike and Stephanie Falvey no longer turn left on Vernon View Drive when going north on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Cathy Leary has started making the turn, but starts applying her brakes at Lucia Lane; her husband, Bob Leary, does not make the turn.

Both the Falveys and the Learys had serious accidents at that intersection. The Learys were returning home from a vacation in North Carolina with their twin boys who had just finished kindergarten.

In the last six months, the Park Service has recorded 51 accidents on the stretch of the parkway between Reagan National Airport and the Mount Vernon Estates; two were fatal.

On Friday, June 3, Betsy Roderick turned off Morningside Lane onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway to go northbound and collided with a Mazda SUV coming southbound. She was killed instantly.

On April 18, a woman driving a Chevrolet Tahoe collided with a Range Rover and a BMW after falling asleep at the wheel, according to police. The Tahoe was traveling southbound on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when it crossed over the double yellow line and collided with the two cars in the northbound lanes. In the Tahoe were an adult passenger and an infant. The driver and the infant survived; the adult passenger, Siham Arun, did not. She died that afternoon at Fairfax Hospital.

That same day, a car making a left-hand turn from Old Mount Vernon Highway struck Eleanor Brophy as she walked in the crosswalk. It was Brophy’s first day working at Mount Vernon Estates and she was seriously injured. Her brother, John Russell, said that his sister has now returned to work, but her equilibrium is still not right.

He believes that too many drivers are not aware of the fact that they must give way at a crossing and that they need to focus more on driver education.

“Drivers are king in this country,” he said. “People don’t understand crossings. They don’t know and they don’t care.”

Two incidents occurred last year that were unrelated to parkway conditions. In December, a person was struck by a car after he fell from the stone bridge into its path. That same bridge was the scene of another accident last November. An Eyre Bus filled with students on their way to Mount Vernon Estates was traveling in the right lane when it struck the bridge, shearing off a portion of the roof. None of the 28 passengers on the bus were seriously injured.

SGT. SCOTT FEAR, public information officer, U.S. Park Police, said that speed was not an issue in either of the fatal accidents; they were both caused by human error.

“We have not had a large problem with speed — we use radar and laser for speed enforcement. We also conduct sobriety checkpoints. The amount of injury accidents on this stretch of highway is not very high. The things that are dangerous we stay on top of and safety is our number one concern. We feel that it is a pretty safe roadway, and put every effort into making sure that continues.”

That fact is not so apparent to Cathy Leary, who still remembers the details of the accident she was in 12 years ago.

“We were sitting at Vernon View [Drive] when we were rear-ended by a conversion van. It pushed us into oncoming traffic where we were hit again,” she said.

They, and the police, believe that they were saved because their station wagon was so tightly packed with vacation items.

“The car was totaled. The golf clubs in the back saved us,” Leary said. “It was bad; I’m sure the guy who hit us was enjoying the view — it’s gorgeous right there. The only way to fix it is to put a turning lane there, but they’d have to reconfigure the road.”

The effects linger for Mike Falvey, who was coming home from Fort Belvoir, waiting to make the same turn. He was hit four years ago by a car. The driver never applied the brakes and he wonders if that driver was also enjoying the view. He now turns at the exit prior to Vernon View, and said that he tenses up when he goes by the Vernon View intersection. He also gets nervous when he’s the last car in line at a stoplight. He frequently checks his mirror.

“I had really bad whiplash,” he said. “It took awhile for it to go away. I couldn’t do the Air Force test, because when I did sit-ups and push-ups the pain came back.”

“Overall, speed is the problem,” Falvey said. “It is 45 mph, but most cars are going at least 50 mph and some are always going faster than that. It seems like you don’t see enough police on the parkway. When you do see police in the evening, they’re stopping people going north. People need to slow down, maybe they put up signs saying, ‘It’s a park, slow down and enjoy the drive. Relax.’”

AUDREY CALHOUN, Superintendent National Park Service, said, “The speed limit is set low enough and if people adhered to it, we wouldn’t have serious accidents. The Park Police focus on speeding and write a lot of tickets, but when people don’t see them, they think they can speed. The reality is that we have too much traffic and not enough officers.”

She added that they had been hoping to install cameras for automated photographic speed enforcement along the parkway but the Commonwealth of Virginia rejected the use of them.

“We identified several locations, but could never get the regulation approved,” Calhoun said. “That would have been ideal.”

One of the more dangerous intersections is Belle View Boulevard and Calhoun said that she proposed making that a right-turn only intersection.

“The community opposed it,” Calhoun said. “The simple things we have to do with community approval. They wanted more studies. We received a lot of letters that it was not appropriate and that stymied it. Anything else will require a major study and a major design.”

Calhoun said that they rehabbed that end of the parkway in the late 1980s but have no maintenance scheduled for anytime soon. Signals are not an option because it was built as a parkway.

“Right now, we need to sit back and regroup,” she said. “It’s a beautiful stretch of road, but it’s not designed for cars that travel as fast as they do today. It’s a different frame of mind — people are handling more pressures.”

What is surprising is that Calhoun said that the amount of traffic has not increased significantly over the years. About 13,000 cars pass by Mount Vernon Estates each day and 16,000 by Belle View. That may change if the additional personnel are transferred to Fort Belvoir as part of the BRAC [base closing] proposal.

“The closer you get to D.C., the more traffic you have,” Calhoun said.

“People make mistakes; they pull out into traffic and look both ways and don’t look again,” she said.

Calhoun said that she has spoken to people who have been involved in the accidents; one of them was a Park Service employee and he said that he never saw the car that hit him.