At the urging of fire and rescue personnel upset by continuing roadway carnage, Baltimore County's top officials recently announced an effort to reduce pedestrian accidents and fatalities. If anything, the campaign is overdue given that the county recorded 22 pedestrian crash fatalities last year and is on pace to meet and exceed that total this year.
At a news conference, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz noted the upward trend, decrying the fact that last year's total was far higher than during any of the five years prior. Over the past five years there have been 108 pedestrian accident fatalities, the vast majority (91) involving the death of adults 21 or over.
Baltimore County is hardly alone in this. While traffic fatalities have generally been in decline in this country — falling from 43,005 in 2002 to 32,367 in 2011, a 25 percent drop — pedestrian fatalities have remained stubbornly high. In 2008, a total of 4,414 pedestrians died in traffic accidents nationwide, compared to 4,432 in 2011.
Statewide, the experience has been similar, with an average of about 106 fatalities per year — although the number has been in a modest decline. Add in "incapacitating injuries," and the total number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured is an alarming 477 per year.
But while we don't doubt the sincerity of Baltimore County's efforts — particularly by those fire, police and rescue personnel who have to deal with the aftermath of such crashes — we do have to question whether they will prove sufficient. Aside from the onetime news conference, the county's "Heads Up! Walk Safe" initiative has been described mostly as a public awareness campaign to make pedestrians and others cognizant of the problem — although organizers admit they have little to no money to spend on advertising or other outreach efforts.
Will there be heightened police enforcement of jaywalking laws? The department's spokeswoman says not necessarily (perhaps because a crackdown on jaywalking is often seen as a potential civil rights violation). Will more money be spent to upgrade crosswalks, deter jaywalking or slow traffic in high-pedestrian areas? No.
Contrast this to what happened nearly a decade ago when then-Councilman Kamenetz pushed through a law requiring large shopping centers and malls to install security cameras in their parking lots and garages at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars for each facility. That wasn't sparked by 22 deaths per year but by one — a 58-year schoolteacher shot to death in a botched robbery at Towson Town Center.
Or here's another point of comparison: Ocean City last year mounted a campaign to reduce pedestrian fatalities on Coastal Highway at a cost of $400,000. It involved local businesses, investment in median strip barriers to prevent jaywalkers from crossing mid-block in some sections, and a major ad campaign that included stenciled warnings on the sidewalks and wrap-around advertisements on local buses. The result? The number of pedestrian crashes was reduced by half, and a similar "Walk Smart" campaign is taking place this summer to try to sustain the trend.
Mr. Kamenetz has earned a reputation as a penurious leader, but there are times when county government needs to open the purse and spend some money on initiatives. That most pedestrian-involved accidents are the fault of pedestrians and not motorists — an early theme of the county's public awareness campaign — is not especially helpful if it absolves drivers from taking greater precautionary efforts or the county from spending money on safety upgrades.
Assess each major corridor in the county where pedestrian crashes are most likely to happen — Liberty, Reisterstown and York roads among them — and tailor a strategy for each. Then develop a budget and a timetable for changes, setting goals and drawing in business and community leaders. That's how Ocean City did it and how College Park is moving forward in the wake of several accidents on U.S. 1.
We applaud Baltimore County for recognizing a serious problem — one that other jurisdictions ought to focus on as well. We just want to see Mr. Kamenetz aim higher than posting on social media or with mounting placards at bus stops. The pedestrian deaths should to be viewed with the same sense of urgency and upset that accompany high-profile homicides and other serious crimes. Just ask the first responders who have seen the devastation.