Traffic deaths up, tickets down

Maryland's preliminary traffic safety numbers for 2015 are in, and they reveal a shocking 17 percent increase in fatalities. According to the preliminary data, 520 people died from injuries suffered in crashes on Maryland roads last year compared to 443 in 2014. The uptick not only bucks the long term trend of declining traffic fatalities in Maryland but it more than doubles the projected 8 percent increase in traffic fatalities nationwide.

State officials blamed a variety of factors for those added 77 deaths, including an increase in vehicle miles traveled (meaning more cars on the road and people driving more miles each day) and they unveiled a comprehensive strategy to reduce the number of crashes, highlighting Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to invest nearly $2 billion more in highway improvements. While some road projects — adding paved shoulders or clearing sightlines, for example — can improve safety, a more fundamental problem may need to be addressed.


Just as the number of people dying in Maryland crashes was going up last year, the number of traffic citations written by the state's law enforcement community was going down. According to District Court records, police filed 55,470 fewer traffic-related citations last year, about 4 percent below the number they filed the previous year. And for the first two months of this year, police have filed thousands fewer than in 2015 — a total of 172,395 compared to 183,749 in 2014 and 192,854 in 2013, about a 10 percent decrease in two years.

That's troubling because it suggests a potentially lax response from Maryland's 158 police agencies at the worst possible time. If roads are getting busier, as officials suggest, the number of citations should actually be increasing, since more cars mean more speeders, more drunk or distracted drivers, more red-light running and so on. It should be, as military strategists like to say, a target-rich environment for writing traffic tickets.


A one-year increase in traffic deaths could simply be an anomaly, of course, but it ought to be taken as seriously as the past year's spike in homicides in Baltimore that has drawn national attention. Both demand a preventive response by law enforcement. If drivers don't believe they'll be pulled over for speeding, using their cellphones, not wearing a seat belt or ignoring traffic signals, they are less likely to obey the law — that's just human nature.

Earlier this month, Maryland lawmakers approved "Noah's Law," which enables a significant new tool to fight drunk driving. Soon, all those convicted of driving under the influence will be required to install ignition interlock devices that prevent their vehicles from starting (or continuing to run) unless the driver passes a Breathalyzer test. But the measure won't do much good if drunk drivers aren't spotted and pulled over by police in the first place.

The response outlined by the Hogan administration includes commendable education and outreach campaigns to alert motorists to the potential dangers on the road. There's even a plan to install 26 "It Can Wait!" signs along highways to remind drivers not to call or text until they pull over at the next rest stop. In unveiling the plan, Governor Hogan said he was committed "to making our highways as safe as possible." And a spokesman for Maryland State Police points out that troopers actually made more traffic stops last year than the year before, even if the number of citations written as a result of those stops declined slightly from 363,387 to 361,057.

Still, there should also be a place for a more forceful police response and not just in targeting drunk driving. The statistics show that the traffic fatality increase is widespread, with two Eastern Shore counties (Talbot and Wicomico) together totaling nearly as many additional cases as Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties combined (an increase of 15 for the two rural counties versus an increase of 16 in the Baltimore-area ones). This is not a problem for one part of the state but for all of Maryland, and it's not just one circumstance — fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles, young drivers and bicycles were all up substantially.

Here's a suggestion: In his next news conference, Governor Hogan should don a state trooper hat and take radar gun in hand and start pulling over speeders, aggressive drivers and cellphone users himself — and ask the smaller police departments statewide to do the same. The message needs to get out that safety isn't just a friendly suggestion or even a personal responsibility but that authorities plan to get tough on dangerous behavior of all kinds. That may not be the most appealing tactic to those who hate government or see traffic citations and fines as confiscatory, but it remains one of the most proven and effective techniques for reducing highway deaths.