Maryland's 2023 traffic fatalities may top 2007's grim death toll

ANNAPOLIS (Oct. 4, 2023)—Maryland is on track to see the highest number of roadway fatalities since 2007, according to Motor Vehicle Administrator Christine Nizer, with Prince George's County leading the state in fatal crashes.

As of Oct. 4, Maryland has seen 456 roadway fatalities this year, according to Maryland Department of Transportation's Crash Data Dashboard. Last year, 564 people died on Maryland roadways, while in 2007, 615 people were killed on state roads.

"We are on track at this point, if the numbers stay consistent, to go over 600 fatalities," Nizer said during the Transportation Revenue and Infrastructure Needs meeting last month. "We have not seen that kind of numbers since 2007 and so we are sounding the alarm."

More traffic around the fall and winter holidays often increases the toll.

"We see a lot of fatal crashes during holiday weekends and especially during those highly traveled holidays," Elena Russo, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Police, said. "We see a higher volume of traffic and with a higher volume of traffic, as you can guess, we see a lot more violations of the rules of the road."

The number of roadway fatalities in Maryland rose in 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic decreasing travel across the state, Maryland saw 574 roadway fatalities in 2020, 39 more deaths than the year prior. Traffic deaths continued higher than typical pre-pandemic numbers into this year.

On Sept. 12, Gov. Wes Moore announced more than $11.5 million in funding for 85 organizations, agencies and programs working to improve roadway safety in Maryland. The money is destined for measures such as overtime traffic enforcement, to prevent distracted or impaired driving and to promote use of seat belts and child seats.

Changes in driving behaviors since 2020 are at least partly responsible for the increase in roadway fatalities, said Ragina Ali, public and government affairs manager for the American Automobile Association—Mid Atlantic.

"We know there were less people on the roadways, at least in our area and across most of the country, but it seemed like those who were driving were engaging in more dangerous and risky behaviors," Ali said. "That they kind of thought the roadways were open and raceways and we did definitely see an alarming increase in dangerous driving behaviors."

The unsafe and reckless driving habits that proliferated during 2020 have continued into 2023, she said.

"Any increase in the fatalities on our highways is alarming," said Russo. "And when we see our numbers increasing, it should be a wake-up call to motorists to sort of revisit the rules of the road."

The leading causes of roadway fatalities have been consistent in the years since 2020. Over the last four years, distracted driving has been involved in the most crashes, followed by speed. Often, though, several things contribute to a crash.

"In some instances, a crash may have multiple factors," Ali said. "In other words, somebody may be impaired and be distracted. They may be distracted and speeding."

According to John Seng, founder of the Maryland Coalition for Roadway Safety, a shortage of police officers monitoring roadways and, ironically, an increase in speed cameras encourages speeding.

"(When) you get to drive 11 to 12 miles over the speed limit and still not get a ticket for speeding through electronic speed enforcement," Seng said, "you are tacitly saying, 'It's OK if you speed eight miles over the speed limit.'"

According to Russo, law enforcement agencies across the country have faced difficulties recruiting officers.

"Like every law enforcement agency in this nation right now, we're having a tough time recruiting individuals who are qualified for the job," Russo said. "One of the primary reasons may be public perception at this time of law enforcement. In the media, you've seen a lot of high-profile incidents that include police misconduct … and therefore our citizens may have lost trust in their law enforcement agency."

While the number of crashes has decreased every year since 2018, the number of fatal crashes continues to rise, according to MDOT. In 2018, one in every 243 crashes was fatal. Comparatively, in 2022, one in every 203 crashes was fatal.

Prince George's County has led the state every year at least since 2016 with more fatal crashes than any other county, according to MDOT's Crash Data Dashboard. In 2022, 121 roadway fatalities were reported in Prince George's County, 21% of the statewide total.

Just a few days ago, on Sept. 29, four people died in a crash in Prince George's County after their car ran into a tree on Woodmore Road.

Commuters' reliance on Prince George's roadways is one reason the county sees higher rates of fatal accidents than any other county in Maryland, according to Ron Weiss, a member of the MD Route 210 Traffic Safety Committee.

"A lot of people travel through Prince George's County to get to the District to work," Weiss said. "A lot of the traffic on our roads is commuting back and forth from the Beltway and I think that plays a part (in) it."

One area of concern for drivers in Prince George's County is Maryland Route 210, known colloquially as Indian Head Highway. According to Rev. Robert L. Screen, founder of MD Route 210 Traffic Safety Committee, in 2022 10 people died on the 14-mile segment of MD 210 in Prince George's County.

"People are scared, they're nervous, they're anxious," Screen said. "I can't tell you the number of people that avoid 210, they go on other roads to avoid going on Indian Head Highway. The reputation precedes itself in the mindset of a lot of people that live in this community."

According to Screen, Route 210, sees higher volumes of traffic than other highways because it offers access to Washington, D.C., which when combined with increasing populations in Charles County and St. Mary's County from infrastructure improvements has meant more wrecks.

"It's got a reputation in the area and it's not a good reputation," Weiss said. "It reflects not just on Fort Washington or Accokeek or Oxon Hill; it reflects poorly on all of Prince George's County and Maryland."

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