Grafton Shop and Route 23

A woman was killed last year at the intersection of Grafton Shop Road and Route 23. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Aegis staff / February 25, 2013)

After a spike in 2012 that saw multiple fatalities in several accidents, 10 fewer people were killed on Harford County highways last year over the year before.

There were 21 people killed in motor vehicle related accidents in Harford in 2013 compared with 31 deaths in 2012. The county had 23 highway deaths in 2011, 24 in 2010 and 26 in 2009.

Unlike 2012, last year did not include any accidents in which more than one person died. Four accidents in 2012 accounted for 10 deaths, including two in which three people were killed.

Concerned with the spike in fatal accidents in 2012, county police agencies created a new traffic safety task force to pinpoint ways to reduce accidents and likewise ramped up enforcement against speeding and distracted driving. Sheriff Jesse Bane, who called accidents and traffic safety issues a major concern, was behind the creation of the task force.

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Edward Hopkins, spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, said he hopes the reduction in fatal accidents last year means the education efforts by the Sheriff's Office are working.

Most highway fatalities in Harford occur on or near state roads, which are patrolled by Maryland State Police, while the Sheriff's Office investigates accidents on county roads. The police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace investigate accidents on the streets within their borders.

The causes of the two fatal accidents the Sheriff's Office handled in 2013 included speed, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and weather or bad road conditions, Hopkins said.

In addition, police got another enforcement tool in October, when a new state law took effect making it a primary offense to text or otherwise use a hand held wireless device while driving, meaning police can stop and ticket people they observe texting, without having to stop them for another alleged violation. The fine for a first offense is $83.

The Sheriff's Office's traffic division believes the overall reduction in fatal accidents in the county last year is largely a result of increased enforcement and more public awareness of distracted-driving laws, as well as enforcement of drunk driving, Hopkins said.

The Sheriff's Office made four arrests during a sobriety checkpoint in Joppa in September 2013. Maryland State Police also arrested seven people during a July checkpoint in Fallston.

Multi-faceted reduction effort

"The Sheriff's Office Traffic Unit, along with the Harford County Traffic Task Force, have individually and jointly increased traffic enforcement efforts for all traffic violations," Hopkins explained in an e-mail.

"They have worked hard  to raise the public's traffic safety awareness through enforcement, community presentations, sobriety checkpoints, community partnerships and public messaging using a variety of social media messaging platforms," he wrote.

"The Traffic Unit is very hopeful that these messaging and enforcement efforts were successful in 2013 by causing people to think twice about their actions when driving," Hopkins said, adding officials are optimistic the enforcement and messages will keep reducing crashes in 2014.

Hopkins noted the traffic task force chaired by Sheriff Bane set a goal of cutting traffic crashes caused by distracted driving from 1,532 in 2008 to fewer than 1,274 by Dec. 31, 2015, a reduction of 16.8 percent.

In addition to police, the task force includes representatives of agencies such as the county's Office of Drug Control Policy, the State Highway Administration and Harford County Public Schools.

"There is a concerted effort by the above listed agencies to increase enforcement efforts and raise public awareness in an effort to reduce crashes caused by distracted drivers," Hopkins said.

Lt. Matthew Kail, commander the of Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack, said accidents in general seemed to stay steady even as fatal crashes went down.

"We handle a high volume of crashes in Harford County and we are constantly dealing with that issue," Kail said. "That seems pretty steady."

He said the Barrack did implement a few new initiatives, namely Kids in Safety Seats, to try to keep children safe in the car.