Traffic deaths in Harford County have taken a nose dive in the first nine weeks of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012, with the most noticeable difference in February.
Seven people died on Harford roads during 29 days in February 2012, including four in one day. There was a single highway death in January 2012 and another on March 2, 2012.
By contrast, this year Harford recorded no deaths in January, two in February (28 days) and none so far in March, a net reduction of seven deaths year-to-year. Last March, three people died, on March 16 and 24 in addition to March 2. January 2013 is only the second fatal-free month in the last 15; no fatalities were recorded last October.
Are there statistical anomalies at work – a deviation from the mean, or are drivers and pedestrians simply being more careful this year? The weather hasn't appeared to be a factor in any deaths that occurred in early 2012, or this year, either.
According to the county's new traffic task force, set up by the Harford County Sheriff's Office with participation from Maryland State Police and the local municipal police forces, the county had 31 traffic fatalities in 2012, with a third of them between Jan. 1 and March 31.
The deaths last year were eight more than in 2011 and seven more than in 2010. They also exceeded the 26 deaths in 2009, 21 in 2008 and 29 in 2007.
Last year wasn't the worst year on record for fatal accidents in Harford: 37 people died in traffic accidents in 2002, 34 in 2001 and 33 in 2003, according to previous articles published by The Aegis and to local law enforcement officials. Even so, the rate at which people were dying in the first half of last year prompted establishment of the task force. At the time, Harford was ranked fourth for traffic fatalities among the state's 24 major jurisdictions.
Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane recently presented the task force's report to the Harford County Council. It's principal recommendation is to form a permanent commission to study traffic issues in the county. Beyond that, Bane vowed he and the other police agencies would continue to focus on traffic safety in the county.
Bane said this week he believes the dip in traffic fatalities so far this year is partially a result of efforts, both at the county and state level, to crack down on unsafe driving and to make some general safety improvements on local roads with a history of multiple personal injury accidents.
"I would say it's probably due to a number of factors," Bane said about the lowered fatality numbers. "If you were to look at the difference in traffic fatalities in Harford County and the state of Maryland, it pretty much coincides with the Maryland Strategic Highway Safety Plan."
That plan, which Bane heavily referenced during his January presentation of the task force report, was released in August 2011 and presents a strategy through 2015.
The county is largely piggybacking on those state efforts with its safety initiatives.
"I think the effort on the state level would account for some of that," Bane said about fatality reductions.
"I think that probably something that has made a difference here in Harford County are some road improvements, particularly in the area of [Routes] 24 and 924 in Edgewood," he said.
"Making the improvements to that road, which opened up sometime last year, probably made a difference in some traffic congestion and some problems that we have had," he said.
Slow down, pay attention
Last year, as the traffic deaths began to climb, Bane and State Police urged drivers to slow down and pay attention on the roads. They also stepped up traffic enforcement efforts.
In earlier interviews, Bane especially warned drivers to watch out on Harford's many two-lane roads, which continue to see increases in traffic. Many, such as Routes 543 and 152, are major travel routes. Both roads experienced multiple fatal accidents in 2012, though none so far this year.
Midway through 2012, 17 people had died on Harford's highways, including three siblings who were killed in a three-vehicle crash on Route 543 south of Bel Air on the evening of Feb. 20, 2012; a pedestrian was run over and died in Edgewood earlier the same evening; and two people were killed in a head-on collision on Route 152 in Fallston on May 8, 2012.
The 14 deaths in the final six months of last year included three friends who died when their vehicle ran off Route 646 in Street on Nov. 17, 2012 and the deaths of two people in a vehicle struck by a truck on I-95 in Abingdon on Nov. 24 that State Police say involved a road rage incident. Another death, on Sept. 6, 2012, was a veteran sheriff's deputy who was killed when his unmarked patrol vehicle ran off Route 1 in Darlington, while he was driving home at the end of his shift.
The Sheriff's Office has yet to handle a fatal accident investigation in 2013; State Police have investigated two since Jan. 1, Sheriff's Office spokesman Adam Stewart said.
This year's two deaths were on Feb. 2 and Feb. 21. In the first, a Baltimore man died when his vehicle went out of control on Route 40, near Mitchell Lane south of Aberdeen, and crashed into a guardrail, according to State Police.
The second death was a Churchville woman who was a passenger in an SUV was involved in a three-vehicle accident at the intersection of Route 23 and Grafton Shop Road in Forest Hill, which State Police say was the fault of one of the other drivers involved. Another death occurred at the same intersection last July 27. Despite calls for a traffic signal at that location, the State Highway Administration says their accident statistics don't justify one, noting that both recent fatalities were in accidents where driver error was the cause.
Media attention to deaths
In discussing the drop in accidents so far this year, Bane said Harford has been drawing attention to traffic fatalities and accidents through the media, both from reporting the accidents and from the efforts to educate people on the cause of fatalities.
The sheriff also noted that in spite of last year's high number, highway death rates in Harford had been going down from that high point in 2000-2003, when deaths were approaching 35 to 40 per year.
The combination of national, state and local efforts have all helped drive the rates down, he reiterated, but added there's more involved.
Just preventing deaths is not enough, Bane explained. Plenty of state and local resources go into handling even minor accidents and transporting victims to various hospitals, both by ambulance and Medevac, he said.
"It's not that we're concerned just with the fatalities, we're concerned with traffic accidents altogether," he said.
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.