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Harford highway deaths rose to 22 in 2015, with 10 more recorded so far this year

Harford highway deaths rose to 22 in 2015, with 10 more recorded so far this year
A 21-year man died after his vehicle collided head on with a school bus on the Bel Air Bypass in early April, one of 10 vehicle related fatalities in Harford County so far this year. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland highway deaths rose by 17.5 percent to 520 last year, including 22 in Harford County, prompting state transportation officials and police agencies to voice their concerns and pledge to lower the totals.

For Harford, which saw five more fatalities last year compared to the previous one, 2016 isn't off to a good start, either, with 10 traffic-related deaths reported through the middle of this week, including four in the month of April.

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Like many other counties, Harford experienced a reduction in deaths prior to 2015. Fatalities in the county had soared to 31 in 2012, before dropping back to 21 in 2013 and 17 in 2014, according to local and state police agencies.

The 10 deaths reported in Harford this year include three involving pedestrians and at least one that had multiple fatalities. During the first hour of the new year, two Anne Arundel County men were killed when the ATVs they were riding collided on a county road in Pylesville.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office has investigated four fatal accidents so far this year, compared to four fatal crashes handled by the agency in all of 2015, according to spokesperson Cristie Kahler.

"The devastation inflicted upon our friends and families in motor vehicle crashes has brought about action on the part of the Sheriff's Office," Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said in a written statement.

Gahler said alcohol intoxication, distracted driving and speed have been found to be contributing factors in "a great many" crashes.

"By targeting the contributing factors to our crashes we have had positive results overall," the sheriff said.

Gahler said deputies have made more arrests for driving under the influence, issued more citations for distracted driving, as well as increased the number of overall traffic citations.

He noted "our targeted enforcement based on analysis has helped to reduce crashes overall."

"Education, engineering and enforcement remain key parts of the effort from the Harford County Sheriff's Office and our partners to reduce crashes in general and fatal crashes in particular," Gahler said.

Prevention efforts

Maryland State Police troopers based in Harford County have handled six traffic fatalities on state-maintained roads so far this year, the same number they handled by this time last year.

"Right now, we're on an even par," Lt. Tim Mullin, commander of the MSP's Bel Air Barrack, said last week.

Mullin stressed that police can pinpoint areas where a high number of crashes are happening, but it is much more challenging to predict where and why a fatal crash will happen.

"We can map out all of our fatals and look at it, and you're not going to see a hot spot in one particular area," he said.

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Mullin said that if the locations and time of day of fatal crashes were mapped out, "you would just have red dots randomly throughout the county."

Causes in this year's fatal accidents have ranged from a motorist having a "medical emergency" while driving, hitting the rear end of another vehicle and killing the driver of the rear-ended vehicle to a criminal suspect who stole a car and crashed into another vehicle while fleeing police, killing the occupant of the vehicle he hit, Mullin said.

Mullin and other barrack commanders attended a recent program in Linthicum, which featured a presentation by Thomas Gianni, chief of the Maryland Highway Safety Office.

Gianni told the commanders that a victim in 36 percent of the fatalities statewide was not wearing his or her seat belt, the driver was impaired in 33 percent of those crashes, and 27 percent of fatal crashes involved speeding, Mullin said.

Mullin said he and his fellow commanders learned that 48 percent of fatal crashes across the state happen between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., which lines up with more than a quarter of the crashes involving impaired drivers.

"There is a wealth of knowledge, and a lot of it is data driven," he said.

The troopers under the command of Mullin, who came to the Bel Air Barrack in January after serving as commander of the JFK Memorial Highway Barrack in Perryville, stepped up DUI enforcement in March and April.

Mullin said his troopers made 30 DUI arrests during March.

Three more people were arrested for driving under the influence during an April 16 sobriety checkpoint on Route 24 south of Ring Factory Road. Mullin said those arrests were among 11 drivers who were directed to the shoulder of the highway for "further checks."

The barrack does about two to three sobriety checkpoints each year, and they are not just about making arrests, but educating motorists as well. Mullin said each driver gets a brochure on the dangers of drunken driving.

"It also lets the public know that we're out there, that we're serious about driving under the influence, what it can lead to," he said.

Statewide concerns

Several hundred federal, state and local traffic safety experts gathered at the 2016 Strategic Highway Safety Summit, held April 26, in an effort to develop solutions to combat the rising number of traffic deaths.

"Let's be honest folks, we have our work cut out for us," said James F. Ports Jr., deputy secretary for operations at the Maryland Department of Transportation, as transportation officials unveiled the 2015 statewide fatality numbers.

"There's no sugar coating this news and quite frankly these numbers are unacceptable," Ports said.

The state saw a 35 percent increase in traffic fatalities involving commercial vehicles and a 26 percent increase in fatalities involving young drivers, officials said.

In addition, the bicycle fatalities doubled — from five in 2014 to 10 last year, officials said.

Ports made it a point to highlight two people in particular killed in 2015.

A Montgomery County police officer was killed by an admitted drunken driver in December while conducting a traffic stop on Rockville Pike. Michael Pierce, a Maryland Transportation Authority employee, was killed while mowing grass along Interstate 95 near Havre de Grace in May.

"Let me tell you, folks, it's no fun going to these funerals and talking to the family members of someone they expected to come home that day," Ports said.

The increase comes even though Maryland State Police troopers conducted some 564,000 traffic stops in 2015, said Col. William Pallozzi, police superintendent.

Police continue to aggressively enforce traffic laws and seek out impaired drivers. Troopers have conducted 30,000 traffic stops in April alone, Pallozzi said.

The increase in traffic fatalities is not confined to Maryland. Nationwide the number of traffic deaths increased some 8 percent, Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Transportation Safety Board, said.

While Maryland's police agencies and others are doing their part to reduce traffic deaths, motorists also must play a part, Pallozzi said.

Officials encouraged motorists to always drive sober and free from any distractions, including cellphones.

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Talking on a cellphone while driving increases the risk of being in an accident four times; text messaging, at least eight times, Hersman said.

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