BERLIN — In the wake of a tragedy that ended one young life and devastated at least two more, residents in Berlin are calling for safety improvements on Route 113 and pushing for a closer community to help advocate for them.
Last week while driving on Route 113, Maryland State Trooper Nicholas Hager, 21, struck brothers Tymeir D. Dennis, 16, and Tyheym D. Bowen, whose age was not released but who had just graduated from Stephen Decatur High School (SDHS) last spring. Dennis, a junior at SDHS, was pronounced dead shortly following the collision, while Bowen was flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center for treatment. Bowen is reportedly recovering from his injuries.
On Tuesday, residents and community officials held an awareness meeting to discuss what changes are needed for the stretch of Route 113 that crosses through Berlin. A petition was also circulated, which attributed seven fatal accidents to Route 113 since 2000 and called for a lower speed limit and the installation of crosswalks. Safety Committee Member Patricia Dufendach began the meeting with a moment of silence and an offering of condolences to the brothers’ family.
“This is not only a loss to their family but to our whole community. And we need to respond as one community,” she said. “We’re here to share our thoughts and concerns about safety on 113.”
The current problems on Route 113 are likely to get worse with further dualization of the highway, continued Dufendach. Therefore, the committee is circulating a petition calling for a reduced speed limit as Route 113 crosses Berlin, as well as countdown crosswalks at the intersections of Bay Street and Route 113 and Old Ocean City Boulevard and Route 113.
Attendees at the meeting were encouraged to add their own suggestions and many did. Common recommendations include better lighting at intersections, pedestrian warning signs and a stoplight at Germantown Road.
Resident Chrissy Knight proposed installing a “Welcome to Berlin, Please Slow Down,” billboard along Route 113. Resident Bryan Russo encouraged the town to look at what nearby Ocean City has down with its Walk Smart Ocean City campaign.
“We don’t have to look far to find the solution because in Ocean City they had pedestrian accident problems for the better part of several summers,” he said. “And this past year they launched a big ‘Walk Smart’ campaign.”
The campaign included signage, advertising and even a mascot. Dufendach agreed that a Walk Smart Berlin had potential.
While most residents favor a reduced speed limit on Route 113 through Berlin, exactly how much the current 50 mph limit should be cut was up for debate. Councilman Dean Burrell called for a reduction to 35 mph, but Police Chief Arnold Downing warned that the limit can’t be arbitrarily dropped. The State Highway Administration (SHA) has committed to performing a speed survey in the area and Downing’s advice was to wait for those results.
“The speed itself, if you try to artificially lower it, you’re going to have people going 35 over and those sorts of things,” he said. “So it’s a flow of traffic and what it should be. So they’ll come back and say this is what the flow of traffic should be. And the study itself should be able to take care of the actual number.”
SHA is expected in front of the Mayor and Council at the Dec. 3 meeting, when it will review the town’s requests with any improvement projects likely to start over the spring or summer. In the meantime, Downing said that the town can still designate walking areas so that pedestrians don’t cross Route 113 at random spots.
“We can go ahead and tell folks, ‘this is where you need to be walking,’ and I think that will help things,” he said.
Drivers should also lead by example and slow down as they cross through Berlin, according to Councilwoman Lisa Hall. Burrell agreed.
“We can do what’s right. We can drive our own personal cars 45 or 35 [mph],” he said.
As the safety suggestions continued to mount, resident Gabe Purnell reminded those in attendance that it’s not just about signs and lights but about a community being united in a common goal. He considers Route 113 in a way symbolic of historic troubles that go beyond pedestrian safety and touch on the racial tensions of years past.
“If you look at 113, and I hate to bring this up but it’s history, and we need to understand our history or else we’ll repeat it again, as so many people have said,” Purnell said. “[Route] 113, if you look at it, it precisely separates the communities, whites on one side and blacks on the other. And we’re paying dearly today for that.”
The statement was met with a chorus of agreement from the audience. Dufendach admitted that it’s something that has long troubled her, but a problem she sees as surmountable. Crosswalks would better connect each side of Route 113 for walkers and bikers. A united response from the town to last week’s tragedy is its own display of connectivity, Dufendach said.
“We have to know where we’ve been but we can move forward and join ourselves back together,” she promised.
There were other questions asked at the meeting about the investigation into last week’s accident, including how fast the trooper was driving, that the committee was unable to answer. But Dufendach assured residents that once all of the facts were clear she had every confidence in the State Police to make that information available.
The town will compile the suggestions offered this week and present them to SHA next month. The safety petition is currently circulating throughout the town and residents are encouraged to contact SHA and their own elected representatives, both state and local.