Maryland has a pedestrian problem

In Las Vegas, gambling is the biggest game in town. But pedestrians don't get to play.

A visitor to Sin City recently found that while all manner of vice might be winked at, jaywalking is not. On downtown Fremont Street, knowledgeable locals warned pedestrians about crossing against signals, telling them that police aggressively issue tickets for the offense. And wouldn't you know? Even in the rain, pedestrians in one of the least sober cities on the planet were actually waiting their turn.

And where there were crosswalks, drivers actually yielded to pedestrians. Even without the Glitter Gulch signage, it was obvious we weren't in Maryland anymore.

When it comes to pedestrians, Maryland is the anti-Vegas. What we have here is a dysfunctional relationship between drivers and walkers that helps ensure a seemingly permanent spot among the most dangerous states for pedestrians.

The Governors Highway Safety Association recently released a report showing that Maryland is one of only four states — if one includes the District of Columbia — where more than 20 percent of all road fatalities involve a pedestrian. It is also one of only four where the pedestrian fatality rate is more than 2 per 100,000 residents each year.

Since 1999, that has meant between 91 and 116 deaths a year, with no clear trend. Last year brought a statistically insignificant decrease from 54 in the first six months of 2009 to 50 in the first half of 2010.

To a large degree, Maryland's high pedestrian fatality rate is a function of geography. James Hedlund, the lead researcher for the association study, noted that Maryland is one of the most compact, urbanized states in the Union. That translates into more pedestrian exposure.

But there are also cultural factors at work. Hedlund said that in California when a pedestrian moves to step off a curb, traffic cars are likely to stop. In Baltimore, they're just as likely to speed up.

A reader suggested to me years ago that Baltimore has the worst-behaved pedestrians in the country. I couldn't find empirical evidence to confirm that claim, but you don't need anything but eyes to tell that pedestrians here are out of control.

But driver behavior around pedestrians is no better. A few years ago, I staked out a crosswalk in Brewers Hill and was amazed at how many motorists breezed through the well-marked crosswalk at speeds of about 50 mph even as pedestrians were stepping into the street in front of them.

Jen Gaffney of Baltimore recently wrote Getting There with testimony indicating that matters have not improved:

I work in Harbor East, and along with many other people, I park in the Little Italy parking garage on Exeter Street. Each morning and evening, we have to cross Eastern Ave at Exeter, where there are lines in the intersection which indicate a pedestrian crosswalk. There is no stop light at this intersection, which means no pedestrian lights.

However, motorists do not stop for pedestrians here, and actually it seems like they speed up when they see someone trying to cross the street.

Since it's a busy street, pedestrians wait a very long time for traffic to clear in both lanes. When people get impatient, it becomes a dangerous situation as they dart out in between cars. Do you know how to request the city install a "Stop for Pedestrians" sign like I've seen in other neighborhoods?

Jamie Kendrick, Baltimore's deputy transportation director, said that over the next month or so the city will seek bids on a project to install about 40 flashing signals, repaint the stripes on nearly 600 crosswalks, install more than 150 new handicapped-accessible ramps and curb cuts and put up nearly 700 pedestrian countdown signals.

Kendrick said all of the projects will be undertaken in school zones. In addition, he said, the city will announce a significant investment this spring on traffic-calming measures.

These initiatives are quite welcome, but they don't add up to a comprehensive policy. It does nothing about crosswalks that aren't in school zones. It doesn't crack down on scofflaws.

For that, the city and other Maryland jurisdictions need to step up enforcement.

According to Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the governor's safety group, other states have stepped up enforcement efforts using "decoy" pedestrians to nab drivers who ignore crosswalks.

Such operations have been used to good effect in the areas of drunken-driving and seat belt use, but they don't make much of a dent without a media effort that gives each citation a multiplier effect.

Kendrick said Baltimore last mounted a sting operation in September but he acknowledges that it wasn't well-publicized. These programs need to be done with a splash — including inviting video coverage of the enforcement actions. It would be fair if they targeted crosswalk-violating drivers and jay-walking pedestrians equally.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly ought to reconsider its current fines for pedestrian-related offenses. Right now, a ticket for a motorist failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk — one of the most dangerous of moving offenses — carries a measly $90 fine. Shouldn't it be closer to the penalty for passing a school bus with flashing red lights? A $570 fine would certainly get motorists' attention.

Last year, New York adapted the "Elle's Law" statute, named for a 3-year-old girl who was struck in a crosswalk and left in a coma by an SUV traveling in reverse on a one-way street to grab a convenient parking space. The law automatically suspends the license of any driver who strikes a pedestrian while driving recklessly. Not a bad idea.

It would take a combination of these strategies for Baltimore and other Maryland communities to catch up with Las Vegas' effort to keep the crapshoots in the casinos and out of the crosswalks.

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