To most Americans, the governments in their towns and regional areas called counties are the governments they interact with the most. Alongside these local governments are groups of citizens who work on their own to make life better. In this segment of a multi-part series, VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at how one family's tragedy caused the people in one Montgomery County town, in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland, to band together to demand safety improvements.
Dangerous traffic has claimed a young life, and a town responds. In Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, there is the town of Garrett Park. The main road running through the town is busy Strathmore Avenue.
Twelve-year-old Luke Carter-Schelp tried to run across the street between fast-moving cars on a rain-slicked night. He did not make it.
Luke's death caused an outcry among the people in Garrett Park. Gene Brantley, one of the leaders of the local citizens' association, explains his group's role. "It's the citizens' voice. It's basically the mechanism we use to bring people together when there's a particular issue of concern to the entire town," he says.
Garrett Park residents asked officials from the county and the State of Maryland to come to the meeting and discuss traffic safety. The state controls Strathmore Avenue, but county police enforce traffic laws on it.
Setting an urgent tone for the town meeting was Luke's mother, Valerie Carter-Schelp. "There has been a dramatic increase in pedestrian accidents involving children on Strathmore Avenue," said Carter-Schelp.
Two other Garrett Park children were struck by cars about a year earlier. Some townspeople blamed the problem on the police.
"The officers, they're not making traffic stops. Please have your officers pull people over," said one resident at the town meeting.
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger quickly responded. "Strathmore Avenue will get additional attention. And, I'll tell you why. Because it deserves it," he said.
But other Garrett Park residents wanted more than extra police presence. They called for a dramatic change in regulating traffic on the avenue.
Because the State of Maryland must approve a new traffic light on Strathmore Avenue, Maryland legislator Bill Bronrott pledged his support for town pressure on state highway officials.
"I'm very happy to work with you to find a solution. I want to make sure they [state officials] hear from everybody in this town, in this county, about how we feel about pedestrian safety," Bronrott said.
One resident outlined a strategy to get the state to agree.
"I think letter writing and a petition drive will be helpful. But you're dealing with a Highway Department at the state level. They [state officials] have to be convinced that this [installing the traffic light] is the right thing to do,” said another resident.
Long after the town meeting, the Garrett Park Citizen's Association continued to press for the traffic light on Strathmore Avenue. "I encourage you to not give up on a fully-functioning traffic light," said a resident.
The effort paid off three months after the death of Luke Carter-Schelp, when state highway officials agreed to install the light.
While not every citizen initiative succeeds in changing what governments do, the townspeople of Garrett Park accomplished their goal.
Video production assistance provided by VOA's Craig Fitzpatrick.