Endangered pedestrians

In Ocean City, preparations for the coming summer season are in high gear. There are the new solar-powered parking kiosks, a bus locator app (available in both Apple and Android, naturally) and a new Hyatt Place hotel on the boardwalk that’s expected to open in mid-July. But the most striking change of all is gradually rising in the center of town — a median fence in the middle of Coastal Highway extending 23 blocks from 39th to 62nd streets.

That fence isn’t there to be decorative, it’s there to prevent jaywalking and is part of a $7 million project to enhance pedestrian safety. Last year, two pedestrians died in Ocean City traffic accidents despite considerable efforts by the town, the State Highway Administration and others to make the resort safer through an “Ocean City Walk Smart” campaign. The barriers, along with improved lighting, signage and other physical upgrades are just the latest tools in what has been an ongoing war on traffic deaths.

But Ocean City and its 21 pedestrian-involved accidents last year are not some extreme case. In fact, Ocean City’s pedestrian safety initiative might be a model for the rest of Maryland and perhaps the country with its combination of enforcement, engineering and education. Across the United States, pedestrian traffic deaths are rising and at a faster rate than traffic deaths generally.

A study released this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that the rise of faster, limited access roads in cities and suburbs and the popularity of larger sport utility vehicles are proving a fatal combination. In 2016, 5,987 pedestrians died in collisions, a 46 percent increase in seven years and the highest total since 1990. Since 1975, the authors note, pedestrian deaths had been in steady decline, but something has clearly changed — just not everywhere or on all thoroughfares or all hours of the day.

By far, the greatest rise since 2009 has been in so-called “arterials” (high-capacity collector roads such as Coastal Highway) and not in side roads or interstates; in urban, not rural areas, not around intersections; and most often in the dark. That’s why adding a fence to force pedestrians to use crosswalks, as the SHA is doing in Ocean City, may prove to be a particularly effective strategy. The authors suggest other physical improvements such as adding sidewalks and providing room for bike lanes — Baltimore, pay attention — can reduce pedestrian-involved crashes as well.

Maryland is actually slightly below average for pedestrian deaths — its 1.65 fatalities per 100,000 population compares to a national rate of 1.75, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But most neighboring states are doing better with Virginia at .93, West Virginia at 1.08, and Pennsylvania at 1.2. Delaware and D.C. are much higher at 3.38 and 2.23, respectively, which is most likely a reflection of their more urban-oriented circumstances.

There are any number of other factors involved, from distraction — its not just drivers who are texting but pedestrians who are unwisely staring at their cellphones, too — to alcohol involvement (about one-third of pedestrian deaths occur to people whose blood alcohol level is above the legal limit for driving, according to the GHSA). Some of the states with the biggest increases in pedestrian deaths include those that have recently legalized recreational use of marijuana, although experts warn it’s probably too early to judge a definitive link.

The SHA has made pedestrian and bicyclist safety a priority with a goal of reducing fatalities and serious injuries over a five-year period to 459 by 2020 from its most recently reported 514 in 2015. But one wonders how often police are ticketing or even warning distracted pedestrians, let alone jaywalkers. Are parents having conversations about walking into traffic with their children? How about schools or churches or rec centers? Clearly, it’s not as high profile a matter as it’s become in Ocean City where even local public transit buses carry the Cheswick the Crab safety logo warning pedestrians to “Walk smart. Drive smart. Bike smart.” They’ll even be giving away free backpacks with that message next month during the traditional “senior week” when recent high school graduates head to the Atlantic beaches the first two weeks in June. That’s an impressive effort for a city with two pedestrian deaths a year. Considering Maryland saw 20 times that many pedestrian fatalities during the first six months of 2017, more of us should be paying attention, too.

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