Fourteen people have died in 12 crashes in Charles County so far this year, and if crashes continue at this pace, more than 50 people will be killed on Charles County roads in 2005, Sheriff Frederick E. Davis has announced. The Sheriff's Office is committed to preventing fatal crashes but needs the public's help to be successful.
"This is an alarming statistic. Fatal crashes are an enormous public safety concern right now," said Sheriff Davis. "We can not let this continue, and it is going to take all of us working together to prevent tragedies from occurring on our roads."
Between 1999 and 2003, an average of 25 people lost their lives on Charles County roads. However, according to Rebecca Martin, the Charles County Community Traffic Safety Program coordinator assigned to the Sheriff's Traffic Operations Unit, this statistic is only the tip of the iceberg.
"The five year average for motor vehicle injuries is 1,630," she said. "This is the average number of people injured or killed on Charles County roads between 1999 and 2003, but it doesn't show the amount of pain and suffering inflicted on crash victims and their families.
"And if human suffering isn't enough to get everyone's attention, consider the financial cost involved in crashes: The average crash-related costs for Charles County between 1999 and 2003 is $235 million," she said.
The fatal crashes in Charles County are not specific to any particular road or region of the County, but at least six of them involved speeding or inattentive drivers. At least six of the victims were not wearing seatbelts. The victims vary in age, from 20 years old to 91 years old. Only one driver who died was confirmed intoxicated, but another crash involved a driver who was under the influence of PCP. That driver survived, but two people in the vehicle he struck were killed as a result of the crash. Six of the crashes involved pickup trucks, one crash involved a van, three involved passenger cars, one involved a motorcycle and one involved a pedestrian. These statistics do not include the most recent crash, which occurred May 2 and was investigated by the Maryland State Police.
The Charles County Sheriff's Office enforces traffic laws year-round and heightens awareness about the importance of properly wearing seatbelts and using child safety seats during the annual Chief's Challenge campaign held April-June. During the two-month campaign, the Traffic Operations Unit holds random seatbelt checkpoints and sends notices to the media to raise public awareness about the Challenge. Some businesses also display messages on their marquees that remind motorists to buckle-up.
Since October 1997, Maryland has had a primary seatbelt law, meaning police officers can ticket drivers and/or adult front seat passengers for not wearing a seatbelt even if the motorist does not commit any other violation. Charles County's seatbelt usage rate for 2004 has dropped from 90 percent in 2003 to 88.6 percent. Charles County used to be fourth-highest in the State of Maryland but is now sixth.
"With the decrease in seatbelt use, we expect to see an increase in crash-related injuries and fatalities," said Martin. "Every citizen must buckle up, every ride, every time. It's the law and it's a life-saving act." Sheriff Davis agrees. "When officers issue citations to drivers for not wearing seatbelts, for speeding or for any other traffic violation, they are doing it as part of their oath to protect and serve," he said. "Citations aren't meant to be an inconvenience. They are our way of enforcing the law and they should also be a wake-up call to motorists who are practicing unsafe driving behaviors."
Nationally, safety seat belt usage rose to 80 percent in 2004, up from 58 percent in 1994. Each national percentage point increase in safety belt use represents 2.8 million more people buckling up, approximately 270 more lives saved and 4,000 injuries prevented annually, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates.
Also according to NHTSA statistics, among passenger vehicle occupants more than four years old, safety belts saved an estimated 14,903 lives in 2003. If all of the occupants older than four wore safety belts, 20,984 lives - an additional 6,081 people - could have been saved in 2003.
Just as important as seatbelt use is child safety seat use. Child passengers have special needs when traveling in vehicles. It's not enough to buckle them up; motorists need to know the proper way to secure children in vehicles. Safety seats need to be appropriate for each child's age, height and weight. All children up to six years of age and up to 40 pounds must be secured in a child safety seat. Children less than one year old and under 20 lbs. should travel in rear-facing seats. Convertible seats are available that face the rear during this stage and can face the front when the children are ready to graduate to the second stage. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children remain in a rear-facing seat until they reach 18 months of age. Children who are between 40 and 60 lbs. should use a forward-facing safety seat according to the seat manufacture's instructions.
Effective by law October 1, 2003, children up to age 6, regardless of their weight, and children who weigh 40 lbs. or less, regardless of their age, must be secured in a federal-approved child safety seat according to the safety seat and vehicle manufacturer's instructions.
It is also important to properly install a safety seat. The Charles County Sheriff's Office has a number of officers and cadets who are certified by Safe Kids to install child safety seats. To make an appointment to have your seat installed, call PFC R. Padgett at 301-932-3052.
What Can the Community Do?
Last year, the Sheriff's Office issued 6,645 citations for speeding, 846 for failure to wear a seatbelt and 60 for failure to properly secure a child passenger younger than four-years-old in an appropriate safety seat. To help combat alarming fatality and injury statistics, the Sheriff's Office will continue to enforce these and all traffic laws and to participate in public education activities. However, they need the community's help.
"We do everything we can to enforce the law, but preventing a tragedy really begins with the decisions you make every time you get behind the wheel. Your actions impact the your own life and safety and that of your passengers and fellow motorists. Driving is an enormous responsibility and everything you do counts," said Sheriff Davis. The Sheriff offered these tips for motorists:
Wear your seatbelt and ensure your passengers - child and adult - are properly secured before you take the car out of park.
Obey the posted speed limit.
Adjust your speed to fit weather conditions. If it's snowing or icy, the speed limit is sometimes still too fast. Make sure you have your headlights and your windshield wipers turned on when it rains.
Make driving your priority. When something is distracting you - a cell phone call, a misbehaving child - pull over to the side of the road. When your main focus is not on the road, you shouldn't be driving.
A NHTSA press release announced April 21 that United States Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta calls the problem of highway traffic deaths a "national epidemic" and encouraged Americans to view wearing safety belts as a form of preventative medicine.
NHTSA also announced 42,800 people died on the nation's highways in 2004, up slightly from 42,643 in 2003, according to projected 2004 data complied by NHTSA in a preliminary report. NHTSA's report also projects a fatality rate of 1.46 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, a drop from a record low of 1.46 in 2003. The following statistics comparing 2003 to 2004 are also projected in the NHTSA report:
Injuries dropped from 2.9 million to 2.8 million, a decline of 4.6 percent
Overall alcohol-related fatalities dropped 2.1 percent from 17,013 to 16,654. At positive blood alcohol content (BAC) levels under .08, fatalities dropped 9.8 percent
Passenger car occupant fatalities declined by 2.4 percent and pickup deaths dropped 2.0 percent, while sport-utility vehicle deaths rose 4.9 percent
In 2004, 56 percent of occupants killed in passenger vehicles were not wearing safety belts, a rate that was unchanged
Pedestrian deaths declined 3.2 percent from 4,749 to 4,598 in 2004
Fatalities from large truck crashes increased slightly, from 4,986 to 5,169 in 2004
The number of fatal crashes involving drivers ages 16-20 increased slightly, from 7.353 in 2003 to 7,405 in 2004.
In 2004, vehicle miles traveled increased slightly to 2.92 trillion, up from 2.89 trillion in 2003, according to the DOT's Federal Highway Administration.
The number of registered vehicles increased from 230.8 million in 2003 to 235.4 million in 2004