Civic group targets accidents involving pedestrians

Traffic Enforcement Officer Bobby Brown is shown directing traffic at Pratt and Light Streets .
Traffic Enforcement Officer Bobby Brown is shown directing traffic at Pratt and Light Streets . (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

As traffic officer Bobby Brown began his weekday afternoon shift at Pratt and Light streets, he was quickly drawn into the dangerous dance involving pedestrians and motorists.

A motorist didn't see three pedestrians as he made a sharp left-hand turn, but stopped just in time. Another driver skidded to avoid hitting a woman holding a baby who tried to dart across six lanes of traffic — against the light.

Brown's whistle was put to the test, as one of Baltimore's most seasoned traffic officers worked hard to bring order to one of the city's busiest intersections.

Fatal accidents involving pedestrians in Baltimore are at a 10-year low, but the number of people hit by cars in the city continues to account for nearly a third of such crashes across Maryland.

"Everybody is impatient," said Brown, who at 48 started directing traffic a few years after the harbor was transformed from abandoned piers into a tourist attraction.

Volunteers with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council — a group made up of the region's elected executives — are spreading out downtown, educating drivers and walkers to be vigilant and adhere to traffic laws. They are building their "Street Smart" campaign around the recently concluded visit by the Yankees and the homestand by the Red Sox starting Monday.

"It takes time," said the council's transportation engineer, Bala Akundi Sr., noting that past efforts by the government to get people to wear seat belts have made the practice almost routine behavior. "Hopefully, over time, we can slowly make a difference in both pedestrian and driver behavior that leads to a drop in the number of crashes."

Changing the attitude of Baltimore drivers might be difficult. Anyone who drives downtown at rush-hour knows that motorists have a propensity to block intersections and speed through red lights, and pedestrians tend to view crosswalks and don't walk lights as purely optional.

Last year in the city, 820 people were struck by vehicles, down from 973 in 2007. Similary, the number of people injured dropped to 703 from 842 in that same time span, according to statistics compiled by the State Highway Administration. Nine pedestrians were killed in Baltimore last year.

Statistics show that pedestrians were at fault in 70 percent of the accidents statewide, and that nearly three-quarters of the crashes occurred in the dark. More than two-thirds of the people struck were impaired by alcohol.

The metropolitan council's "street teams" will deploy Monday starting at Lexington Market, one of the most dangerous places for pedestrians. Dozens upon dozens of people cross Eutaw Street, to get from the market to the garage, creating a human obstacle course for drivers.

"Two or three people get hit up there a week," said Brown, the traffic enforcement officer.

Akundi said congested streets around the harbor and Lexington Market have higher than normal pedestrian accident rates, but few people are seriously injured or killed on those spots.

In the city, he said fatalities typically occur on streets leading out of Baltimore, such as Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights Avenue, "where the speeds are higher." Akundi said that also explains the number of fatalities on suburban roads, which sometimes have long stretches without lights or crosswalks.

In fact, in the Baltimore area's two largest suburban counties, pedestrian fatalities are increasing. There were 34 fatalities reported in Anne Arundel County between 2009-11, up from 22 in 2001-03. In Baltimore County, 53 pedestrians were killed in the past three years, up from 45 in 2001-03.

Baltimore Police Maj. Anthony T. Brown, who heads the tactical and traffic divisions, said his officers target areas of the city for enforcement where crashes occur regularly. That includes Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and most recently St. Paul and East 33rd streets, where several Johns Hopkins University students have been struck by vehicles.

The major said initiatives in those areas and elsewhere have resulted in 200 citations being written over a single weekend. "And we just don't go up and write tickets and leave. We study the intersection and try to diagnose any problems. Do we need for traffic control devices, or more crosswalks?"

For example, he said the city is putting small yellow posts at crosswalks in areas not covered by traffic signals. Pedestrians have the right of way, but he noted that many drivers do not yield. The yellow posts remind people to pay attention.

The biggest culprit, he said, are cell phones. "If they're having a bad discussion with their boss or a family member, that's where your attention is. Whether you're driving or walking, cell phones are a big concern."

Asked about the animosity drivers and walkers have for each other, Bobby Brown, the traffic enforcement officer, declared, "It's even. Everybody seems to be in a hurry to get to their destination."

As his shift began at 3 p.m., cars filled six lanes as they barreled down St. Paul Street toward the entrance to Interstate 95. "Once they hit St. Paul," he said, pointing north, "and they get that long straight-way, they're rolling at 60 mph by the time they get here."

The officer highlighted some common problems: drivers who go straight in turn-only lanes — he's been sideswiped twice in his 30-year career, hit by the side mirrors of cars speeding by — and those who fail to yield to pedestrians while rounding a corner.

Pedestrians, Brown said, are often distracted —by phones, for example — and feel entitled to cross streets where they please.

Sometimes, the bad habits combine. Brown watched a young woman cross Pratt Street. Though she had the walk sign, she crossed well away from the crosswalk, and a motorist turning left onto Pratt had to abruptly stop.

Just then, a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase stepped off the curb. Brown yelled, "Sir, Sir, green light," as he pointed to the traffic signal. The man immediately backed up. "Sorry, didn't see," he responded.

Baltimore Sun reporter Candus Thomson contributed to this article.

Fatal pedestrian accidents

Baltimore City

2001 — 20

2007 — 17

2008 — 11

2009 — 16

2010 — 10

2011 — 9

Baltimore County

2001 — 11

2007 — 17

2008 — 17

2009 — 20

2010 — 15

2011 — 18

Anne Arundel County

2001 — 7

2007 — 8

2008 — 6

2009 — 13

2010 — 11

2011 — 10

Howard County

2007 — 4

2008 –– 5

2009 — 3

2010 — 0

2011 — 0

Carroll County

2007 — 2

2008 — 1

2009 — 2

2010 — 4

2011 — 2

Harford County

2007 — 2

2008 — 4

2009 — 4

2010 — 4

2011 — 3

State of Maryland

2007 — 112

2008 — 118

2009 — 112

2010 — 103

2011 — 103

Source: Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration