Progress made in reducing highway deaths, sheriff tells Harford traffic safety panel

Traffic fatalities have been on the decline in Harford County this year.

The Harford County Traffic Safety Advisory Board was established by County Council legislation in early 2014 with the long-term goal of cutting in half the number of deaths and injuries related to traffic accidents in half.

Harford generally has between 20 and 30 traffic related deaths annually, one of the higher rates in the state, according to Sheriff Jesse Bane, who chairs the panel.

Some progress is being made, however, and Bane had some good news for the other 16 board members who were present at the panel's second quarterly meeting, held Thursday at the Sheriff's Southern Precinct station in Edgewood.

While Harford typically has the third to fourth-highest number of deaths from traffic accidents in the state, the county has fallen to seventh in the state so far this year, Bane said. The county had 31 highway related deaths in 2012, but the number dropped to 21 in 2013. There have been seven deaths this year.

"Kudos to everybody out there and whatever it is out there that's causing that," he said.

Goals to achieve

Board members discussed a variety of factors that can help them continue to achieve their reduction goal, among them improved and more timely collection and analysis of crash data and community events designed to educate residents on the dangers of distracted and impaired driving.

They also discussed dividing up the responsibilities for achieving progress in the board's six "emphasis areas" established around the major causes of traffic accidents.

Those emphasis areas include injuries and deaths related to distracted driving, impaired driving, aggressive driving, driving while not wearing a restraint, accidents caused by "highway infrastructure" and accidents involving pedestrians.

Bane sought volunteers from among board members to oversee the emphasis areas. He encouraged them to pull in people from outside the board to help with gathering data, preparing a report, determining progress or lack of progress during 2014, determining what still needs to be done and identifying what is "holding us back from reaching our goals."

"It's your baby," he said. "It's your emphasis area that you're going to focus on."

Bane also warned about the potential for marijuana to be legalized in Maryland and the impact it could have on highway safety.

He predicted the drug could be legal in two to three years.

"They will keep bringing it up [in Annapolis] until it passes," he said.

Joe Ryan, head of the county's Office of Drug Control Policy, noted fatal DUI accidents in Colorado, where possession of marijuana is legal, have decreased by about 16 percent, but the number of drivers responsible for those crashes who were using pot has increased by more than 100 percent.

Bane is also working with County Executive David Craig to develop legislation for the County Council to place cameras on school buses to catch drivers illegally passing buses that have stopped to let off children. He expects the legislation to be introduced this fall and asked board members for their support.

Data issues

Bane also noted there was "quite a lengthy discussion on the timeliness of our data" during the board's first meeting in March, and a presentation from a data collecting program given Thursday highlighted some of the panel's frustrations.

Erica McMaster, the senior GIS project manager with Washington College's Crime Mapping and Analysis Program, spoke about how CMAP staff work with law enforcement and highway agencies across the state to collect and analyze crash data with tools such as GIS mapping and "infographics" to show where in a community the most accidents are taking place, as well as when and why.

Staffers with CMAP work with police agencies across the state, including the Maryland State Police and local agencies such as the Harford County Sheriff's Office, the Bel Air Police Department and the Aberdeen Police Department.

The data is drawn from accident reports and citations submitted by law enforcement agencies.

McMaster noted that the collection of reports from individual agencies – many of them handwritten – and the time needed to enter them into statewide databases means there can be a backlog of three to six months before the most recent information is available.

When asked about the backlog by Bane, McMaster said local agencies could get complete data from the State Highway Administration's master database through 2013, but only a "snapshot" of data for any month of 2014.

"At what point down the road do you see that it will be possible to get the data in a timely fashion?" Bane asked.

McMaster suggested the state's ACRS, or Automated Crash Reporting System, could help speed that process up.

Lt. Eliott Cohen of the Maryland State Police Strategic Planning Command, said the ACRS is scheduled to go online Jan. 1, 2015.

Cohen, who has worked closely with McMaster and her colleagues, spoke more about data collection.

He said State Police officials are working to increase the timeliness and the accuracy of the data they collect, and they are working to develop a uniform system to share data with local agencies.

"The analysis is only as good as how accurate the data is," Cohen said.

Community outreach

Bane also heard reports from members about community programs to educate teenagers about the dangers of distracted driving, such as using a cell phone while driving, driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, child safety seat inspections, DUI checkpoints and the annual Heather L. Hurd 5K Run/1 Mile Fun Walk.

This year's run, hosted by Harford Community College, takes place Nov. 8, according to a web page on the run, which is held to honor the memory of former HCC student Heather Hurd, who was killed in a 2008 accident – the driver at fault was distracted.

The traffic safety advisory board's membership is drawn from the Sheriff's Office, Harford's three municipal police departments, the State Police, state and local highway agencies and community groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

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