Traffic deaths are up, but where is the urgency to reduce them? | COMMENTARY

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

A crash on Interstate 83 near Cold Spring Lane where one person was killed and two others injured. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).

In the first three months of last year, Maryland recorded 110 traffic fatalities. During the same time period this year, there have been 164 such deaths, a nearly 50% increase. And while that first quarter trend was among the worst in the nation, ), it was hardly unique. U.S. road deaths increased by 7% overall from January through March this year continuing a nearly two-year trend to produce the highest 3-month level of traffic fatalities in two decades, according to recently released National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers.

At what point will those in charge of traffic safety at the state, local and federal level find these numbers alarming? This quarterly result represents 9,560 deaths. Gun-related murders, which have received considerably more attention at most every level of government, are actually responsible for fewer deaths in the U.S. In 2020, for example, there were 19,384 shooting homicides, which works out to be an average of 4,846 per quarter — or roughly half the traffic fatality number. And that’s not even counting how improved emergency medical transport and care on the highways has increased the chances that a crash victim will survive.


What’s going on here? Experts suggest that one of the more unwelcome side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to provide aggressive drivers with a greater opportunity to take chances. With fewer vehicles on the road, particularly early in the pandemic, there was room to weave and speed through traffic, an opening some found irresistible. Nonfatal crashes declined, but fatalities increased, which is what happens when people drive more recklessly and at higher rates of speed. A crash that might cause minor injury at 45 miles per hour, for example, is more likely to prove life-threatening at 70 or higher. Throw in intoxication or failure to wear a seat belt, and the odds grow even worse.

Public education programs may be helpful to remind drivers in Maryland and beyond about the dangers on the road. But in the short-term, the onus is on law enforcement to crack down on dangerous behavior. This is one of the reasons we endorsed the return of speed enforcement cameras on the Jones Falls Expressway earlier this year and why the addition of four more such devices — near schools on Edmondson Avenue, East Northern Parkway, Gwynns Falls Parkway and in front of Frederick Douglas High on Auchentoroly Terrace — could prove lifesaving without diverting precious resources from the Baltimore Police Department.


But clearly more needs to be done. A third straight year of surging traffic deaths ought to be regarded as unacceptable. And those who drive in a hazardous manner ought to be caught and punished. Speed camera violations result in a $40 fine for vehicles detected going at least 12 miles per hour above the posted limit. A driver who recklessly speeds and weaves should face a much-stiffer penalty, and that requires law enforcement to pull violators over.

No doubt that police agencies from the Maryland State Police to their county and municipal-level counterparts continue to actively enforce the law. They know the consequences of inaction as they see the carnage firsthand. But seven straight quarters of increased fatalities is not a blip, it’s a trend and so whatever is being done today is inadequate. Whether the solution is to spend more on public education and outreach, to install more speed cameras or, most likely, to shift law enforcement to a higher gear, it ought to be done expeditiously. If we can be shocked by 19,384 gun-related homicides annually, we ought to be just as alarmed by a traffic fatality rate that is leading us toward a national body count 38,240 this year.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.