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Officials vow crackdown on aggressive driving, speeding

At 25 mph, the Subaru driver managed to stop for "Bobby" — a dummy about the size of a 10-year-old boy — with about 10 feet to spare. At 40 mph, it smashed into Bobby with a sickening thud and enough impact to lift him out of his tennis shoes.

The simulated encounter between vehicle and pedestrian was part of an announcement Thursday by regional law enforcement and highway safety officials of a plan to crack down on aggressive driving — with a special emphasis on speeding and pedestrian safety.

Police officials said the initiative would include increased enforcement of traffic laws in areas with frequent crashes — with tickets to be given to jaywalking pedestrians and law-breaking bicyclists as well as motorists.

It also marked the start of the Baltimore area's Street Smart campaign, which emphasizes the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians.

Thursday's event, including the demonstration on Camden Street outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, was part of the recurring Smooth Operator campaign, in which police step up their efforts to ticket motorists who commit the offenses that define "aggressive" driving: tailgating, weaving from lane to lane, unsafe passing, running traffic signals and speeding.

It was the last of these — perhaps the most socially acceptable and widely tolerated traffic offense — that received the most attention.

"Make no mistake, speeding is aggressive driving," said Vernon Betkey, director of the State Highway Administration's safety office.

For this campaign, officials stressed the dangers of what are typically viewed as moderately excessive speeds when pedestrians are present. Betkey said that 70 percent of the pedestrians killed in 2008 on Maryland roads were struck on streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less.

Excessive speed, Betkey said, increases risks exponentially. The highway safety official was joined at the event by representatives of the Baltimore police, the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Baltimore Department of Transportation.

The main event of the news conference was the demonstration of the results when a driver comes upon a pedestrian at different speeds. Tom Pecoraro, a driving instructor at I Drive Smart who is also a Montgomery County police officer, took his place behind the wheel of the test car and braked at the same spot in each of the tests.

Thomas J. Gianni, deputy director of the SHA Highway Safety Office, said that at 25 mph — the prevailing speed limit on most of the city's streets — the stopping distance is about 16 feet. When he applied the brakes at that speed, Pecoraro came close enough to the wire-frame dummy that it likely would have thrown a scare into a child, but no physical harm would have been done.

At 35 mph, Gianni said, the stopping distance is 44 feet — and that wasn't enough to keep Pecoraro's car from hitting the dummy with enough force that another "Bobby" had to go in as a substitute. "Bobby clearly sustained major and maybe fatal injuries," Gianni said as workers carried off detached limbs.

When a car is traveling at 40 mph — barely above the 12-mph cushion allowed for drivers in 25-mph school zones equipped with speed cameras — the stopping distance increases to 57 feet, Gianni said. And when Pecoraro hit the new Bobby at that speed, the dummy was pushed far down the road as sneakers went flying. The simulation left little question that if the impact had been on flesh and blood, the result would have been fatal.

Jeremy Gunderson, a state highway agency spokesman, said the demonstration was meant to show that even "socially acceptable excessive speeds" can have deadly consequences.

Pecoraro said after the demonstration that the act of hitting the simulated child had set his heart racing.

"Even though I knew it was a dummy and I knew I was going to hit it, it was still a shock," he said.

Pecoraro said pedestrian deaths are among the most difficult to investigate because of the "carnage."

"It's not just vehicles. It's bodies on the highway," he said.

The Smooth Operator campaign, first launched in Washington in 1997 and now including Maryland and Virginia, consists of four "waves" of increased enforcement between June and September. The current wave began Sunday and runs through Saturday.

Officials said the first wave from June 6-12 accounted for more than 90,000 traffic citations. The next is expected to run Aug. 1-7.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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