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Maryland drivers keeping pace with nation's speeders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Five cars speed down Interstate 95 toward Baltimore, bunched together like racers at Daytona, their drivers unaware of the state trooper cruising behind them in a white Chevy Camaro.

"Here we have one, two, three, four, five cars going well above 80 mph," says Trooper Kenny Brown, one of several state officers using unmarked Camaros to nail speeders on a recent afternoon. "I can't stop five cars. So now it's a case of who's going to go the fastest."

In Maryland and across the country, it's a race run daily at the highest speeds. More drivers are going far beyond the speed limit, thwarting efforts to curb highway fatalities and prompting a debate on how to deal with the problem.

Tickets given to drivers going at least 20 mph over the speed limit are up more than 20 percent in the past five years in Maryland, while citations to those going at least 30 mph over the limit are up 63 percent.

And regardless of the posted limit, most drivers on the state's highways are now exceeding 70 mph - the highest speeds ever recorded. Cars are faster, roads are smoother, and everyone, it seems, is late for something.

"Back in the day when I first started, if you got someone in the triple digits, that was something to talk about," said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, an 18-year veteran of the state police. "Now people are ripping up the highway at 40 plus [over the limit], and it's not shocking."

There is little agreement on how to deal with these excessive speeders. Highway safety groups urge tougher enforcement - such as putting more officers on the road and using automated radar guns and cameras to ticket speeders by mail. They also suggest reducing existing speed limits, or at least holding the line.

But others, including the Maryland State Highway Administration, say speed limits must reflect reality. They say the answer may be to raise the posted limit on a few roads where drivers are already far exceeding it, and then vigorously enforce the higher limit.

"We're firm believers that traffic is able to set its own speed and do it very well," said Tom Hicks, director of the highway administration's office of traffic and safety. "Why have a number out there that everybody disobeys? It deteriorates the discipline we need in the traffic control business. We want our traffic signs to mean what they say."

That's why the state is close to raising the speed limit on Routes 32 and 100 - two highways on which drivers frequently travel well above the posted 55 mph limit. Studies are still under way, but it's likely the limit will go up to 60 mph or 65 mph on both roads, which run through Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

"Speeds on Maryland 32 and 100 are in the 65- to 70 mph range, and we think they're eligible for a higher limit," Hicks said. "They're the two roads we get the most comments on."

Maryland drivers are clocking increasingly higher speeds. On highways with 55 mph limits, most drivers are going 71 mph, the state said. On highways with 65 mph limits, most drivers are going 74 mph. (Those figures represent the average of 85 percent of the vehicles on the road, leaving out the slowest and fastest drivers.)

The numbers reflect a national trend, say highway safety experts, who point to ever-increasing horsepower in vehicles, an increasingly rushed society and a popular tolerance for speeding as factors in the higher speeds.

And the higher speeds, they say, are contributing to more deaths. In 2002, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 42,815 people died on the nation's roads - the highest number since 1990. The fatality number has increased every year for the past five years. Not all of those deaths are attributed to speeding, but excessive speed is more often noted as a factor.

'A hurry-up society'

"We live in a hurry-up society," said Richard Retting, the senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "We've become very impatient and very much in a hurry. Many drivers seem to make up for lost time or delays they encounter in their life on the road."

The insurance institute and the Governors Highway Safety Association call speeding a forgotten public health issue, saying that legislators have chosen to focus new laws and money on the more publicly palatable issues of drunken driving and seat belt use.

After seat belt laws were passed in the 1980s and extensive public education campaigns, the number of drivers wearing their belts in Maryland has climbed to 88 percent - the fifth-highest in the country.

But the higher the speed of the crash, the less effective a seat belt is, experts say.

"OK, so you've got more people using seat belts, but if you're going 80 mph, a belt's not going to help you much," said Allan Williams, chief scientist at the insurance institute. "We're talking about unsurvivable crashes."

The federal government lifted its 55 mph mandatory limit on rural interstates in 1987 and on urban interstates in 1995. As states set their higher limits, speeds followed suit. On I-95 north of Baltimore, the speed limit is 65 mph from White Marsh to the Delaware line.

That's where Trooper Brown was patrolling in his Camaro last week. While he was trailing those five cars all going over 80 mph, a gold-colored Taurus zoomed up on his rear end and then blew by him. Brown floored his accelerator, turned on his flashing lights and pulled up alongside the Taurus, gesturing for the driver to pull over.

The driver was Rusty Leonard, 40, of Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the area on a business trip. After receiving two tickets, one for speeding and one for following too closely, Leonard said he was just keeping up with traffic.

"I know I was going over the speed limit, but I don't think I was doing anything unsafe," said Leonard, a vice president for a technology company. "I don't see how [the ticket's] going to change my driving habits."

Trooper Brown pulled back onto I-95 South toward Baltimore and a silver BMW zipped by at 80 mph. Brown followed him until the speed limit dropped to 55 mph, thinking the driver might slow down.

He didn't. He was stopped.

And after Brown pulled out from that stop, a green Infiniti came up on his bumper and nearly clipped him while changing lanes. Another stop, another ticket.

"It's a never-ending story," Brown said. "You take some of the most professional, decent, family-oriented people, and when they get behind the wheel, they change."

He said the flow of traffic on I-95 is about 74 mph or 75 mph and he usually doesn't stop people at that speed: There are just too many of them. Instead, Brown targets high-speed drivers - often at 80 mph and above - who are tailgating and making frequent lane changes.

Brown's colleagues at police agencies across the state are also changing their focus. Tickets given to drivers exceeding the speed limit by less than 20 mph have declined by 22 percent since 1998, according to the state's District Court headquarters. During the same period, tickets to those going more than 40 mph over the limit are up 67 percent.

"Highways have become a dangerous place," said Chief Gary McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. "There are innocent people doing nothing more than taking their kids to school or going to work, and they're being put in danger by some jerks. It's a priority with us."

'We don't play fair'

The transportation authority, which patrols I-95 from Caton Avenue in Baltimore north to Delaware, created traffic enforcement teams last year and provided them with unmarked Camaros, Ford Mustangs and Ford Expeditions. The authority issued 41,000 speeding citations last year, up from 27,000 the year before.

"We don't play fair," McLhinney said. "People just can't be on the lookout for marked police cars. We'll have officers in Mustangs and Camaros and sitting in the back of construction vehicles [with a radar gun] or hiding behind a Jersey wall. We're going to do whatever it takes to get these people off the road, because they're costing too many innocent lives."

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