Deaths on Maryland roads fell to a record 28-year low last year, while police apparently wrote fewer traffic tickets.
Are those signs that drivers are becoming safer and more sensible? Perhaps, but traffic experts say it's too early to tell.
State officials cite several possible explanations for the 11 percent drop in fatalities: a police campaign against aggressive drivers, snowstorms that kept people off roads, highway safety programs, public education efforts and simple luck.
But they acknowledge that the decline of 1996 could be erased this year, for equally elusive reasons.
Last year, 610 people died in traffic accidents statewide, 74 fewer than in 1995, according to state police. The number also is lower than any year since at least 1968, when the State Highway Administration began keeping records.
Record keepers have to go back to 1984, with 650 fatalities, to find the second-lowest year for traffic deaths.
At least two other states, Massachusetts and Virginia, reported decreases in highway fatalities, although incomplete statistics suggest that overall fatalities nationwide remained steady last year.
Experts say it is impossible to point to one factor as a definitive cause for the drop in Maryland fatalities.
The major snowstorms of 1996 helped by keeping drivers off the roads for days at a time, said Elizabeth A. Baker, chief of the traffic safety division for the State Highway Administration.
"Last winter helped us out," she said. "People didn't drive as much. "We generally see a drop in fatalities when the weather is bad even though there are more fender-benders."
While driving may have lagged in January and February 1996, motorists made up for the lost travel time. Baker's office estimates that Marylanders drove more miles last year than 1995.
Experts cautioned that fatality statistics commonly rise and fall from year to year, so greater emphasis should be placed on long-term trends covering many years.
Is 1996 just a fluke? "No, it is an unusual decline, but not out of line with the general fatality decline in the 1990s. But we will have year-to-year ups and downs," Baker said. "We may see [fatality statistics] go up this year because of the law of averages."
Judging by anecdotal complaints from motorists and police, Maryland roads continued to have their share of aggressive drivers -- speeders, tailgaters and red-light runners -- as well as the just plain distracted.
While it may not have eliminated dangerous behavior, some believe a 1 1/2 -year campaign aimed at the aggressive driver has made an impression on motorists, as have long-standing efforts to get drunks off the road.
"Maryland State Police have done a good job of targeting aggressive drivers," said Cathy Hickey, spokeswoman for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer and insurance groups.
State police haved asked people to dial #77 on their car phones to report aggressive driving, and troopers on patrol have been looking for such motorists.
"We attribute a lot of [the fatality decrease] to good luck, but I think some of it was our aggressive driver campaign, some of it was working with the State Highway Administration for engineering changes, and some of it was educational programs that emphasize safe driving," said Lt. Col. Ernest J. Leatherbury, chief of field operations for Maryland State Police.
Although statistics are incomplete, it appears the percentage of fatalities caused by drunken driving dropped from 36 percent in 1995 to 34 percent last year, Baker said.
Interestingly, although police agencies report a continued emphasis on traffic enforcement, officers wrote 6 percent fewer traffic tickets during the last budget year.
Altogether, state and local officers issued 1.02 million citations from July 1995 through June 1996, compared to almost 1.09 million during the previous 12-month period.
Still, those numbers are high, representing a 27 percent increase, at least, over the 1993-1994 budget year.
During all of 1996, state police wrote 21 percent fewer speeding tickets. That is partly due to trooper vacancies, greater emphasis on community policing and higher speed limits on some highways, Leatherbury said.
"Our goal is not to see how many tickets we can write," added state police Sgt. Laura Lu Herman. "Our goal is to save lives, through public education and enhanced patrols on the holiday weekends."
Maryland's traffic fatality rate -- which compares deaths per miles driven -- has dropped 72 percent since 1968.
That mirrors a national trend toward declining fatalities in the last 30 years. Experts credit tougher laws against drunken driving, improvements in highway and car design, and more use of seat belts, child safety seats and air bags.
Seventy percent of Marylanders wear seat belts, although the rate was only 30 percent among fatally injured drivers. "What that tells us is that those fatally injured drivers are a high-risk group," Baker said.
Although data for 1996 are incomplete, Baker also said a downward trend in injuries seems to be continuing.
Sharon Perry, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association-Maryland, said she was happy fatalities dropped last year, but she urged caution nonetheless. "We don't want to say the fight is over because there is always room for improvement."
Pub Date: 2/10/97