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Pandemic has produced a dangerous outbreak of aggressive driving | COMMENTARY

Signs such as this one warn motorists in Maryland that electronic speed enforcement is in effect in posted construction zones. But despite a drop in traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic, motorists are still speeding across the state. File.
Signs such as this one warn motorists in Maryland that electronic speed enforcement is in effect in posted construction zones. But despite a drop in traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic, motorists are still speeding across the state. File. (CONTRIBUTED / MARYLAND STATE HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION)

In Catonsville, there is a video camera keeping an unblinking vigil of the Baltimore Beltway at U.S. 40 where road construction currently limits the maximum speed to 55 miles per hour. It is turning out to be a busy little piece of automation. From March through June, the camera has caught a startling 6,929 drivers going 67 miles per hour or above speeding on this stretch of highway. Last year during the same time period, the camera generated 2,768 citations. In other words, speeding on this portion of the beltway is up 150%. And that’s just half the equation, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a steep drop in traffic in Maryland — by as much as 52% at the height of the economic slowdown in April but closer to 17% as of July, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.

None of this should surprise anyone who has been driving in the Baltimore area or, frankly, most anywhere in this country since the pandemic emptied the roads. It’s become increasingly obvious that with lighter traffic, some motorists have decided that it’s open season for free form stock car racing. Perhaps it’s the excitement of rush hours that lack the usual sluggishness or the fatalism of the COVID-19 body count, but aggressive driving appears to be flourishing. Across the country, the pattern is the same. The National Safety Council estimates that U.S. motorists now have a greater chance of dying on the road; the fatality rate per miles traveled increasing a “staggering 23.5%” in May compared to the previous year. Just last month, state police in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska vowed to crack down on speeding in their states. In Utah, there’s been a spike in police stops of cars going 100 miles per hour or faster.

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Speeding tickets are one thing; highway safety is another. With more aggressive driving, the prospect of a crash and serious injury grow substantially. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that speeding is a factor in about one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities. That adds up to more than 9,000 people dead each year. It’s one thing that speeders take their own lives in their hands, it’s another that it puts other motorists (not to mention passengers) at risk, too. It comes down to basic physics: Speeding gives drivers less control, increases stopping distances, reduces the effectiveness of protective gear and causes a collision to be dramatically more damaging to all involved.

Granted, the Catonsville speed camera is exceptional. Even at other state-operated construction zone locations, ticketing is actually down so far this year — just not down as dramatically as traffic volumes warrant. From March 16 through July 26, the SHA reports, speed-related crashes have actually dropped, but fatal crashes related to speed were up slightly during this period with 33 total, compared to the previous five-year average of 27. Overall traffic fatalities from March through July 2020 match last year’s count despite the drop in traffic. In other words, too many drivers are taking too many chances.

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Certainly, police could step up enforcement efforts but that raises questions about whether that’s the best use of their time during the COVID-19 pandemic when resources are already stretched. And traffic stops also put officers and motorists alike at greater risk of viral transmission. As much as speed cameras are detested by some (and there have been instances of inaccurate results in Baltimore and elsewhere), they are the ultimate pandemic-friendly, human-contact-free way to discourage speeding with $40 citations.

The best solution? For people to voluntarily obey the speed limits and not drive aggressively. Much as dealing with the pandemic comes down to individuals acting in the broader public interest, this isn’t just about personal choice, it’s about ensuring the well-being of others around you.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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