Driven to make our roads safer

The Baltimore Sun

Two weeks ago, this column suggested that cutting Maryland's highway death toll of more than 600 a year in half would be a worthy -- and achievable -- goal.

It turns out that Fred F. Mirmiran, who built many of those highways, was thinking along the same lines. And he's fixing to help do something about it.

Mirmiran is president of Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, a Sparks-based engineering company known for its work on such megaprojects as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement and the new interchange of Interstates 95 and 695 taking shape in Baltimore County. JMT is not as well-known as Coca-Cola, but many of the roads on which you drive daily have been designed by the firm.

So it comes as no surprise that Maryland's State Highway Administration, a big customer of the company, turned to Mirmiran and his peers in the road-building business to help raise private money to help commemorate its 100th anniversary this year. (The actual birthday is Wednesday.)

Mirmiran conceived the idea of creating a nonprofit foundation to help fund the centennial celebration, including underwriting the cost of a book on the history of Maryland roads. But he also decided it would be appropriate for that group to take on a mission more ambitious than one year of ballyhoo.

Thus was born the Maryland Traffic Safety Foundation. The idea, Mirmiran said, was to honor the centennial by setting up something that would contribute to saving lives during the next 100 years.

Early this year, Mirmiran rounded up some heavy hitters on the Maryland highway scene -- folks such as former Maryland Transportation Secretary Bill Hellman, now with RK&K; Pierce Flanigan of P. Flanigan & Sons; and Richard Wagman of G.A. & F.C. Wagman Inc. -- to serve on the board.

The fledgling foundation has raised more than $125,000 -- largely from the engineering and construction industry. Mirmiran says he hopes to bring together a coalition of companies, organizations and individuals to push for measures to save lives.

Part of the emphasis will be strengthening the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where Mirmiran serves on the board of visitors, but the other part will be preventing the accidents that keep the trauma center far too busy.

"The life you save could be your own and your own kids," he said. "It could be your child, it could be your brother, your sister, it could be anybody."

Mirmiran had contacted me after reading some of my columns. He thought we'd have something to talk about. We did.

It turns out that Mirmiran is well aware of the strides other countries -- notably Australia and some European nations -- have made in cutting their road deaths by half or more. We agree that Americans could stand to learn from others.

Mirmiran, who is chairman of the foundation, said he hopes the group -- which includes some politically savvy and well-heeled business leaders -- will be able to bring the governor, Senate president and House speaker together in support of an aggressive safety agenda.

That's how things get done in Maryland. Individual legislators offering incremental bills get shot down year after year. Then the Big Three agree on something big, and it happens.

Mirmiran said that setting up the foundation is his way of "paying back" after more than 40 years in the engineering business. He said the highway safety cause was a good fit because "I've worked hard to build safe highways."

And, like many in his profession, he wants to see the roads he builds used wisely.

The foundation is in its early stages, with no formal agenda or paid staff. But it would be great to see it establish itself as a force for change in an arena where many are wedded to the status quo.

A look at history

Yes, it's been 100 years since the General Assembly established the State Roads Commission, the predecessor of the State Highway Administration, with a mission of connecting Maryland's county seats with paved roads by 1915.

Well, it achieved that and somehow found a reason to continue its existence.

Congratulations are in order for Administrator Neil J. Pedersen and the employees of the SHA, whose labors to keep Maryland mobile are best appreciated by driving on the roads of neighboring states.

This month, a yearlong exhibit opened at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway on the history of road building in Maryland. For most folks, it is less a must-see than it is one more reason to visit what is already one of the city's more interesting museums. But transportation history enthusiasts shouldn't miss it.

Enthusiastic response

Last week's column on the lax treatment of traffic offenders by some of our District Court judges received an enthusiastic response from readers.

Thanks to the readers who responded to the suggestion that it would be a public service if retirees with an interest in traffic safety sat in on court sessions and reported what they saw. Several volunteered, and I hope they will be in court soon -- helping to sort out the real judges from those who are mailing it in. There's plenty of room for more observers.

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