Md. traffic fatalities at lowest rate ever


Your chances of dying in a Maryland traffic accident are lower now than ever.

The rate of fatalities has plunged to the lowest level in seven decades of record-keeping.

Some of the reasons are clear: Cars are safer, roads are better and drivers are more inclined to buckle their safety belts and less likely to drive drunk.

But some reasons are not so obvious. As a group, for instance, the growing number of women drivers are less prone than men to be involved in severe accidents. And the recent recession appears to have altered driving habits.

Auto fatalities are down not only in absolute numbers, but more importantly, the state in 1992 recorded the fewest deaths per miles driven.

"Everybody complains about traffic jams, but nobody takes cognizance of the fact the highway system is dramatically safer than it was 30 years ago," said O. James Lighthizer, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation. "It's great news, and I don't think it's widely known."

A preliminary State Highway Administration report produced this week showed that 664 people lost their lives in traffic accidents statewide last year. That is the lowest total recorded since 663 people died in accidents in 1983.

But traffic safety experts, who prefer to measure fatalities against the number of miles traveled by all the cars, trucks and motorcycles in the state, said the news is actually much better.

The fatal-accident rate -- the number of fatalities per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled -- fell to 1.5 in 1992, its lowest level ever.

The trend reflects a similar pattern nationwide. An estimated 39,500 people died in U.S. traffic accidents last year, the lowest number in 30 years and also an all-time record low of 1.8 when compared with traffic volume.

A variety of factors has played a part in the long-term reduction in fatalities -- most related to driver behavior and the condition of cars and roads. Other factors include improved emergency medical services, the recent economic recession, and changing demographics.

The post-World War II Baby Boom generation has reached its more cautious 40s and 50s, the safest driving ages, and women are more apt to be behind the wheel than ever before. Women are less likely to be involved in fatal crashes than men, particularly under the age of 40, federal traffic safety statistics show.

But far more critically, the drop in fatalities reflects two factors: fewer drunks behind the wheel and a sharp increase in the use of safety belts and child restraints.

"Those two things have been the engine that drives the big reduction in fatality rates," said Michael B. Brownlee, associate administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington.

Safety-belt use nationwide reached 62 percent in 1992 compared with 11 percent in 1982. That has saved an estimated 27,000 lives, making it the single biggest factor in highway safety, Mr. Brownlee said.

Maryland has been a leader in safety-belt use, national surveys have indicated. An estimated 75 percent of Maryland drivers and front-seat passengers are wearing belts, the highest rate of use of any state other than Hawaii, which reports 83 percent usage.

The state began requiring motorists to wear safety belts and use child safety seats nine years ago. Advertising campaigns and promotions have encouraged safety-belt use and the state police regularly honor people whose lives have been saved by belts.

George S. Roscoe, a resident of Glenwood in western Howard County, was honored as one of last year's survivors. The 51-year-old defense analyst was driving to work in his pickup truck early in the morning of Nov. 10 on eastbound Route 32 in Columbia when he was hit head-on by another vehicle.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if I hadn't been wearing a belt, I would have been hurt seriously," said Mr. Roscoe, who suffered only bruises and abrasions when the 40-mph impact totaled his 1982 Ford. "There's no way I could have walked out of that car."

About 18,000 of last year's 39,500 U.S. traffic fatalities were alcohol-related, or 46 percent of all accident deaths. A decade earlier, 57 percent of all accident fatalities involved alcohol.

Tougher drunken-driving laws, heightened enforcement of those laws, and an overall change in public attitudes toward drinking and driving are credited for the decline. Federal officials estimate that 10,000 lives have been saved over the past 10 years by the reduced number of drunken-driving accidents.

Maryland's results were even better: Drugs and alcohol were credited as a factor in 61 percent of fatal accident deaths in 1981, 36 percent in 1991.

"The trend in drunken driving is still downward. It slowed a bit in the mid-80s, but it's still downward," said Anne Russell, assistant director of public policy for Texas-based Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). "The 1992 total was the lowest in 25 years. Hopefully, this is going to continue."

The cars people drive also are getting safer. Since the 1990 model year, all new cars have been required to include some form of passive restraint, either an automatic seat belt or air bag system.

New cars must have driver and passenger-side air bags by the 1998 model year under federal law. The same requirement will go into effect for new light trucks, vans and utility vehicles one year later.

Federal crash-test standards and better safety design by manufacturers have led to numerous safety improvements. They include such things as antilock brakes, improved side and roof strengths, and front ends that are designed to absorb the energy of a collision.

"The most important step in the last 20 years was to get air bags into cars," said Debra Barclay, spokeswoman for the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based consumer group founded by Ralph Nader. "You're going to see the effects of that for years to come."

Ironically, after two decades of fighting against mandatory air bags, the auto industry has now embraced them. Manufacturers have started to routinely tout safety as a selling point for new cars.

Roads are also being built to higher safety standards. Something as simple as the New Jersey barrier, the concrete median barrier that can withstand the force of a major impact, has greatly reduced the number of head-on collisions.

Other items that can be included on the list of road improvements are: better lighting, shock-absorbing barrels around ramp entrances, breakaway sign posts and brighter pavement markings.

"It's been a slow thing, but we think the quality of roads has been something of a factor in the fatality rate," said Thomas Hicks, head of traffic and safety for Maryland's State Highway Administration.

Because Maryland is a small state with the bulk of its residents living near a city, the state has also benefited from the availability of emergency medical services. The increased volume of traffic in the expanding Baltimore-Washington corridor has also meant more congestion: bad for traveling, but good for cutting down on fatal accidents.

The recent recession also may have been a factor. While people are still driving as much as ever, they are driving closer to home and less often on high-speed roads where fatal accidents are most likely to take place.

"The silver lining in any recession is that it tends to reduce motor-vehicle crashes," said Adrian K. Lund, vice president for research with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

The drop in accident fatalities has continued through the first three months of this year. As of midnight Wednesday, 118 people have died on Maryland roads compared with 120 at this point last year.

Not all the news is good, however. Despite the improvement, the number of people who died in Maryland traffic accidents last year was more than enough, for example, to fill all the beds in Mercy Medical Center and Union Memorial Hospital.

Speed is as much a factor in traffic accidents today as it was a decade ago.

And while better than the national average, Maryland's accident rate trailed nine states in 1991, the most recent year for which comparative statistics are available.

Advocacy groups would like to see more safety improvements, including the closing of loopholes that have spared minivans and light trucks from some safety regulations. Organizations like MADD want to see child endangerment penalties given to drunken drivers who have minors in their cars, lowered blood alcohol standards, and better enforcement of alcohol beverage laws.

Getting more people to wear safety belts and to drive sober would further reduce fatalities, but experts warn that the people who haven't been convinced yet will be the toughest to reach.

"We think there's still an awful lot to do," said Mr. Brownlee of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Maryland Highway Safety Milestones

* 1969: Helicopter Medivac program started.

Laws passed to establish blood alcohol levels as evidence of driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated.

* 1973: Maximum speed limit lowered from 70 mph to 50 mph.

* 1974: Maximum speed limit set at 55 mph. Legal drinking age lowered from 21 to 18.

* 1978: Youth provisional license program implemented.

* 1979: Motorcycle helmet law rescinded for adults.

* 1981: Blood alcohol levels lowered to .08 percent for driving under the influence and to .13 percent for driving while intoxicated.

* 1982: Legal drinking age is gradually raised.

* 1984: Child restraint and safety belts required by law.

* 1985: Legal drinking age reaches 21 years for everyone.

* 1986: Safety belt use becomes mandatory for drivers and front-seat passengers in passenger vehicles.

* 1988: Blood alcohol limit lowered to .07 for driving under the influence and to .10 for driving while intoxicated.

* 1992: Motorcycle helmets are required again.

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