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Harford highway deaths took huge spike in February

Nearly one-third of typical year's fatalities in a single month

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

9:54 AM EST, March 5, 2012

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One of the bloodiest months on Harford County highways in recent years concluded Wednesday with seven deaths and a number of people seriously injured.

The county's top police official, a lawman for nearly 40 years, said he doubts the county has ever seen a more deadly February on its roads.

In just 29 days – less actually – the February fatalities equaled nearly a third of what would typically occur in a given year.

The deaths, all well publicized, included two elderly women – one who was driving and one who was a passenger, a motorcyclist, three siblings killed in a single accident near Bel Air and a man killed when he crossed an Edgewood street.

Those accidents occurred between Feb. 7 and Feb. 20, with the siblings and the pedestrian all dying on the latter date.

Yet another serious accident involving a pedestrian occurred in Bel Air just four hours before the month ended.

Moving up in rankings

Sheriff Jesse Bane has expressed concern that the county continues to move up in the state rankings for the number of traffic deaths, and the month of February got attention for an unusually brutal series of crashes. In addition, there was a single fatality in January, leaving Harford with eight deaths in the first two months of 2012.

The most prominent February crash, which killed two Fallston brothers and their sister on Route 543 near Wheel Road Feb. 20, is being called one of the worst accident scenes in recent memory by local law enforcement officials and emergency responders.

In that accident, the victims were riding in a car when, according to Maryland State Police, their vehicle crossed the center line and sideswiped an oncoming car, spun around and then struck broadside by a second oncoming vehicle. The impact of the crash cut the victims' car in half. The two brothers who died were ejected from the vehicle, and their bodies were found several yards away in a wooded area off the roadway. Two people riding in the other vehicle were seriously injured.

The accident, which remains under investigation, was the first triple-fatal in Harford since Nov. 14, 2009, when a husband and wife and a male friend riding in a pickup on their way to go hunting were hit head on by another pickup truck at 4:30 a.m. This accident also occurred on Route 543, but in the Street area some 11 or 12 miles north of the Feb. 20 crash.

The driver of the pickup who caused the 2009 accident suffered minor injuries and admitted to police he had been drinking. He pleaded guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter in February 2011 and is serving 10 years of a 15-year prison term, one of the stiffest punishments ever handed out in Harford courts in connection with a traffic accident.

Despite the spike in the number of traffic-related deaths in February, the number of annual traffic fatalities in Harford County has been fairly stable for the past six years, according to a 2010 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and recent Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration figures.

Harford was ranked seventh in the state for fatalities between 2006 and 2010, with numbers far lower than the top five counties: Prince George's, Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, according to NHTSA.

Harford had 24 fatalities in 2006, 29 in 2007, 21 in 2008 and 26 in 2009, according to the federal report.

Buel Young, spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said earlier this week that the county had 23 fatalities in 2010 and 24 in 2011.

As Bane noted, however, Harford keeps moving up in the state fatalities rankings, from sixth in 2009 to fourth in 2011.

Prevention efforts needed

That the sheriff told a fire company banquet earlier this month that traffic deaths are an area "where we are really hurting." He made that statement just hours after the motorcycle fatal, which occurred in Dublin on Feb. 18, and just two days before the triple fatal and the pedestrian death on Feb. 20.

Bane has promised to look into new initiatives for lowering the fatality rate.

"I don't think we have ever had a February as high as this February," the sheriff said Thursday.

While Bane said he did not know the actual numbers of fatalities through the years, he is mostly focused on improving the county's standing in the state.

"We don't look good. There's not a whole lot we can do in a lot of instances to prevent an accident. That's why they call it an accident," Bane said. "What we need to do in law enforcement... is we can't just say, well, there's nothing we can do and continue on."

Bane also said it does appear the county has had "so many more" accidents in general this year.

'Way up' this year

"I think we are going to be way up [in 2012]," he said. "Let's just say that [fatalities] have been the same or going down. It's still incumbent on the sheriff to see if we can reduce them even further."

Bane has complained previously that the county has inadequate roads to handle volumes of traffic that have increased exponentially in the past 25 years. Route 543 is a case in point. A two-lane highway linking the north central part of the county with I-95, it has become a major route for commuters to Baltimore who want to avoid Bel Air on their trips to and from work.

A nationwide movement is afoot to cut highway deaths to zero, and Bane said he wants to be part of it.

Young, of the MVA, agreed Harford may be bucking a Maryland-wide trend.

"Statewide, the number of fatal crashes are going down," he said. "Hopefully our message is getting out there."