Maryland traffic fatalities hit 66-year low

442 people were killed in traffic incidents in Maryland in 2014, the lowest number since 1948

A total of 442 people died in traffic-related incidents in Maryland in 2014, the lowest number since 1948 and about half the 872 deaths on Maryland roadways in 1968, the deadliest year on record.

The decline continues a steady, decades-long trend in Maryland despite motorists driving billions more miles a year and new distractions such as mobile phones becoming ubiquitous. There were 643 deaths in 2004 and 466 deaths in 2013.

The drop, announced Tuesday by state transportation officials in Annapolis, included a substantial dip in fatalities related to drunken and impaired driving, which dropped to 133 in 2014 from 152 in 2013 and a five-year average of 171 from 2009 to 2013.

Still, someone was killed as a result of impaired driving every 66 hours in Maryland, on average, in 2014 — representing 30 percent of the year's traffic deaths.

The state also saw declines in the numbers of deaths related to aggressive driving and speeding, but increases in those involving motorcycles and older drivers.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said all traffic deaths are tragic and reiterated the state's goal of reaching zero deaths, but said the decline represents huge gains, especially "when you consider the millions more cars we have on the road today."

He and others attributed the decline to federal, state and local initiatives to enhance highway safety over the course of decades — including laws targeting aggressive and distracted driving, seat belt awareness campaigns, improved emergency response techniques by first responders, and enforcement initiatives to pull drunken drivers off the roads.

In each of the past five years, police in the state have made more than 20,000 arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, according to Maryland State Police data. Supplementing traditional police efforts, an initiative funded by the Maryland Highway Safety Office has led to thousands more tickets for offenses such as speeding, using handheld devices and not wearing a seat belt.

"This approach has worked," said acting State Police Superintendent Col. William M. Pallozzi, of collaborative enforcement efforts. "It saves lives."

Other factors in Maryland and beyond also contributed to the declines.

The first medevac helicopter transports to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore began in 1969, helping keep more injured motorists alive. The legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers in Maryland was dropped from .15 in 1981 to .08 today. Maryland's legal drinking age was increased in 1982 from 18 to 21. Since the early 1990s, more and more vehicles come equipped with airbags and a universal motorcycle helmet law went into effect. And cars have become safer as collision research has piled up.

Wearing a seat belt in the front seat of cars became mandatory in 1986 in Maryland, and a primary offense — for which drivers can be pulled over — in 1997.

More recently, legislators banned the use of handheld devices such as phones by drivers in 2010 and made it a primary offense in 2013.

All of the changes helped reduce fatalities even as annual vehicle miles in Maryland went from about 47 billion in 1997 to nearly 56.5 billion in 2014, according to the State Highway Administration.

Rahn and others said further improvements would be made by focusing on efforts in engineering, enforcement, education and emergency response, known as the "four E's" of highway safety.

"Can we do more? Yes. Will we do more? Yes," Rahn said. "Governor Hogan cares about this issue because he understands it's about people's lives, and it's one of the things we can do something about."

One way will be to increase seat belt usage, Rahn said. Although surveys show 92 percent of people in Maryland wear seat belts, 37.5 percent of the fatalities in 2014 involved unbelted drivers and passengers.

"We have to increase the number of people using this simple device," he said.

A national report released in January by Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, titled "Lethal Loopholes," gave Maryland a middling mark as a state that is "advancing but has numerous gaps in its highway safety laws."

The organization, which put the annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in Maryland at nearly $6.8 billion, noted that it remains a secondary offense in Maryland to not wear a seat belt in the rear of a vehicle, and not all drivers with alcohol offenses are required to have breathalyzer systems installed on their vehicles. It also suggested that Maryland should increase restrictions on younger drivers.

The 442 deaths in 2014, still considered a preliminary figure, occurred across the state, with heavily populated suburbs contributing the largest percentages. In 2014, there were 98 deaths in Prince George's County, representing about 22 percent of the total, and 64 deaths in Baltimore County, about 14.5 percent.

There were 40 deaths in Montgomery County, 37 in Anne Arundel County and 29 in Baltimore. Harford County experienced 17 deaths, Howard County 16 and Carroll County 11.

The numbers include vehicle drivers and passengers killed in collisions but also 100 pedestrians struck by vehicles on the state's roads and highways, state officials said. In 2013, there were 111 pedestrian deaths. The annual average from 2009 to 2013 for pedestrian deaths was 106.

There were six bicyclist deaths, down from seven in 2013 and nearly flat with an annual average of seven deaths between 2009 and 2013. Cycling advocates said the state's announcement Tuesday missed an opportunity to address bicycle deaths.

"They aren't declining at the rate we're seeing vehicular deaths declining," said Emily Ranson, an advocacy coordinator for Bike Maryland. "It'd be nice if they at least gave that a nod."

On the vehicle side, there were 27 aggressive driving-related deaths in 2014, down from 53 in 2013 and an annual average of 51 from 2009 to 2013. There were 89 speed-related deaths in 2014 compared with 110 in 2013 and a five-year average of 128.

There were 66 deaths involving motorcycles in 2014, compared with 61 in 2013 and the five-year average of 69. There were 85 deaths involving older drivers in 2014, compared with 70 in 2013 and a five-year average of 82.

There were 39 deaths involving young drivers in 2014, down from 43 in 2013 and a five-year average of 65.

Lon Anderson, managing director of the driver advocacy organization AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the drop in roadway deaths was a "very difficult accomplishment" for the state, but one achieved with the help of motorists who have "chosen to buckle up, chosen to obey the laws, chosen not to drink and drive."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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