Last year, researchers hired by the Maryland Department of Transportation conducted a survey to assess post-pandemic commuting in the state. The results documented some fundamental changes in society. First, the study found, two-thirds of the state’s workforce now works remotely or under a hybrid system. And second, while this trend takes some vehicles off the road, there has been an offsetting pattern of both longer commutes and a reluctance to take public transit, bike or walk to work.
One conclusion to draw from the study, by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth, is that the roads are becoming increasingly congested by drivers facing a longer haul — and perhaps frustrated by their circumstances. Under such an environment, it is not too great a stretch to imagine a temptation among some to drive too fast and too aggressively to shorten their time on the road.
Such speculation was only enforced this past week with the indictment of the two drivers involved in the horrific Baltimore Beltway rollover crash that took the lives of six construction workers three months ago. Driver Melachi Duane Darnell Brown, a 20-year-old Amazon warehouse worker who lives in Windsor Mill, told a judge at a Tuesday bail review hearing that he doesn’t understand why he’s been criminally charged. Yet investigators found that an “event data recorder” on Brown’s Volkswagen Jetta revealed it was traveling 111 mph when the car collided with the lane-changing Acura TLX driven by 54-year-old Lisa Adrienne Lea of Randallstown, whose vehicle was sent tumbling into the work zone with fatal consequences; Lea had been attempting to change lanes in the construction zone. Criminal defendants deserve their day in court, of course, (including Lea who was not taken into custody by police until Wednesday). But given that vehicular manslaughter is defined as reckless driving that results in the death of a human being, it’s difficult to imagine how the reported driving of Brown and Lea in a work zone resulting in six people dead doesn’t fit that criteria.
Yet beyond prosecuting offenders and even taking steps to better secure highway work zones — both essential moves — such measures do not address this core phenomenon of lengthening commutes. As we’ve observed on numerous occasions, Baltimore’s transit systems are woefully inconvenient, poorly integrated and underfunded. If you are within easy reach of MARC commuter rail stations or live in Owings Mills and work at Johns Hopkins Hospital (served by Metro SubwayLink), congratulations, you have bucked the trend. But for most in the region, it’s a long, pokey slog. And, as we’ve also noted before, speed enforcement is just as haphazard, leaving drivers sorely tempted to use a heavy foot on the gas pedal. When automated speed cameras were added to the Jones Falls Expressway one year ago, a stunning 84,000 violations were observed the first month. Could it be because road-weary suburbanites have a lot of asphalt to cover?
There’s no easy fix here — at least beyond police writing more citations for speeding and aggressive driving. And we are also mindful that a terrible crash, like the midday March 22 collision on the west side of Interstate 695, may have already served as a useful reminder to commuters to drive safely. But the long-term view is to provide greater incentives for people to live closer to where they work. It’s better for society, for the environment, for public safety, for families and for public health. Funding transit, fixing schools, making smarter land use choices, these are difficult but essential long-term strategies that must be employed.
This much is clear: Remote work is not a passing fad. And crash deaths are no minor concern either, at least not with an estimated 42,795 U.S. traffic fatalities recorded last year, making it a leading cause of death for teens and one that disproportionately affects African Americans. How a widespread change in commuting first triggered by COVID-19 translates into traffic safety is no minor concern.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.