It's time to form a safety coalition

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's speeders can rest easy another year. Thanks to the tender concern of the Maryland General Assembly, they are free to race through your neighborhoods and through highway work zones without fear of being nailed by speed cameras.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's modest gesture toward highway safety passed both chambers but expired when the House and Senate couldn't resolve their differences.

The near-passage of the bill could be taken as a signal that the governor should try again next year. After all, the bill came so close. But baby steps didn't work this time, and they might get no farther next year. If you're going to spend political capital, why not do it on something big?

The larger problem isn't that people speed and get away with it. The basic issue is that year after year, more than 600 people die in crashes on Maryland highways.

That's a Sept. 11 attack every five years in Maryland.

In 2005, there were 614 fatalities on Maryland roads. The next year, a group of high-level state officials adopted a target of cutting the death toll to 550 by 2010. But the 2006 figure shot up to 652. According to the State Highway Administration, the 2007 toll is expected to range between 600 and 610.

There are some very dedicated people in state government trying to bring those numbers down though incremental measures, but there is little evidence that Maryland legislators have bought into that modest goal. They couldn't even summon the will to ban text-messaging while driving.

So here's a worthy challenge for the governor of Maryland: Persuade the Assembly to make it state policy to cut the number of road deaths by more than half - to under 300 - in 10 years. Get legislators to write it into law, the way they did with education funding in 2002, and then figure out how to do it.

It's an achievable goal. Other jurisdictions around the world - notably in Australia - have achieved such reductions with determined political leadership. What are they? Smarter than us?

It's hard to achieve anything bipartisan in this wildly polarized state, but here's how we might get there:

In the past, the way Maryland has dealt with tricky policy issues has been to set up a commission. People might deride the idea as just another task force, but such panels have helped to forge consensus.

A Democratic governor would be well-advised to seek out a prominent Republican who cares about this issue - and there are many - to help lead such a commission. After all, highway carnage knows no party. Pair that person with a widely respected Democratic co-chair who knows his way around Annapolis and has a track record on highway safety.

Fill out the panel with law enforcement officers, judges, traffic safety experts, highway engineers, religious leaders and lawmakers from both parties. Add some relatives of crash victims to keep the motivation level up.

Then set the panel loose with a mandate to develop a program to reach the goal. Give them enough money so that members can go to places around the world and study measures that have worked. Support them with researchers from Maryland's universities. Have them study every aspect of the problem from engineering to education to enforcement to traffic law.

Don't tell the commission how to get there. Just ask them to check ideology at the door, keep an open mind and to focus on the goal.

Maybe they can come up with a program to halve traffic deaths without speed cameras, red-light cameras, cell phone restrictions or any of the measures some legislators consider intrusive.

My guess is they can't. Speed is a factor in at least a third of road fatalities, while distractions and red light-running account for many more. Law enforcement is stretched too thin to make much progress without 21st-century tools. But if there's a better path, if there's a libertarian way to save lives, bring it on.

Anyway, give these folks nine months to study and hold hearings and to write a comprehensive bill you can bring into the 2010 session as your flagship proposal. Threaten a veto if it's watered down. Show people you can fight for something big that isn't a tax.

Of course, if a governor were to propose such an ambitious goal, some might oppose it on the grounds it could pave the way for "Big Brother."

So give them a chance to vote against a bill setting a goal of cutting highway fatalities in half. Let them vote against even studying how to get there.

Politics is often a game of seize the flag. And on this issue, win or lose, a shrewd politician could lay claim to a banner that has long been waved by others:


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