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Flouting the Rules of the Road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As word spreads of a tragedy such as last week's traffic accident in Woodlawn, one of the first questions people ask is, "Was the driver drunk?"

Raymond C. Haney had a blood alcohol level of zero when his car plowed through the Woodlawn bus stop, killing four children and one woman. He didn't seem to have been under the influence of drugs. He hadn't suffered a sudden attack or seizure that could have caused the mishap.

He apparently was just in a hurry.

Mr. Haney was on his way to work. And he allegedly did what police say is now a common practice among impatient drivers: Leaning hard on the gas pedal, weaving in and out of lanes and ignoring basic traffic guidelines.

It's getting dangerous out on the road; from 1974 to 1992, the number of accidents caused by reckless or inattentive drivers in Maryland rose 14 percent. It's getting deadly, too; more aggressive driving has led to a 24 percent increase in highway fatalities from January to mid-July of this year, compared to the same period in 1994.

Any driver who has racked up even modest mileage could offer anecdotal evidence of the trend. Being tailgated while driving at or just above the speed limit. Being passed on the right while driving in the middle lane of a highway. Being cut off, sweared at and shown hand signals that have nothing to do with indications of direction.

Last week, Sun reporters Douglas Birch and Thomas Waldron listed some of the presumed reasons for the decline in driving civility. For example, society's addiction to instant gratification is reflected in the rude motorist's disregard for the rules of the road. The downsized economy has created a lot of stress that many people vent through their vehicles. Cars are safer and more powerful, thus giving drivers the impression they can flout the laws of man and physics with impunity.

Another likely reason has to do with the drop in enforcement by police. During a recent three-year period, the number of traffic tickets written in Maryland fell 28 percent, as police agencies have placed less emphasis on enforcing traffic laws and more on fighting violent crime and drug dealing.

The new Maryland State Police program targeting aggressive drivers has lately helped lower the highway fatality rate. More programs along these lines, possibly combined with public service announcements, might be needed to teach many drivers the manners they have either forgotten or never learned. We might otherwise see more tragedies, with people dying just because some driver was in too much of a hurry to follow the rules.

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