The way this legislative session is shaping up for highway safety advocates, they fear the next signs they'll see posted at the border will read: "Welcome to Maryland: Autobahn of the Chesapeake."
Bills to raise the highway speed limit and repeal the 3-year-old motorcycle helmet law are receiving some support. Meanwhile, a bone that was thrown to the safety folks that would have banned radar detectors was swallowed up by lobbyist Bruce Bereano, that renowned champion of public health.
The bill to raise the speed limit from 55 mph to 65 mph on rural portions of Maryland's interstate system has been chugging along since Gov. Parris Glendening made it the lead item in his State of the State address. His transportation spokesmen justify the change on the grounds that the state highway death toll has been dropping despite faster speeds in recent years (due in no small measure to air bags, stricter seat belt and drunk driving laws) -- as if Maryland must quickly reverse this trend lest it have too few highway deaths.
The officials argue out of one side of their mouths that motorists drive the speeds at which they're comfortable, regardless of the posted limit, and out of the other side of their mouth contend the current law abiders are pining to drive faster as soon as the 65 mph signs go up. Deaths rose by 24 percent between 1988 and 1993 in 40 states that raised their highway limits -- and that was in western states whose conditions bear little resemblance to Central Maryland, one area where this change is being sought. This is an instance when Maryland should let its neighbors be the guinea pigs on upping the speed limit and review their accident experience instead of our own.
Ironically, legislators killed a provision in the 65 mph bill that would have banned radar detectors. Truth be told, the radar detector ban is a meager offset since only 5 to 15 percent of motorists use such equipment. The federal government outlawed their use in trucks last year. But legislators this winter seem to take glee in flaunting anything to do with road safety. Even the motorcycle helmet law, credited with nearly halving the death and injury to motorcyclists from 1,154 victims in 1991 to 681 last year, is under attack.
Lest any Marylander think the Free State is already too progressive on highway safety, they're mistaken. This state has one of the nation's weaker seat belt laws -- police can only cite you as part of another violation. And it is one of only four states without a so-called per se law for drunken driving, making it easier for lawyers to spring drunken driving clients on technicalities.
With changes in philosophy sweeping Annapolis, politicians are increasingly equating less regulation on highways with more freedom. They should be equating it with more death.