WASHINGTON – Maryland highway deaths are at their lowest rate since the state began keeping records, according to new statistics from state and federal officials.
The Maryland State Highway Administration reported this week that there were 610 fatalities on state roads in 1997, the lowest since record keeping began in 1969.
And the state is on pace to record even fewer deaths in 1998, highway officials said. There have been 402 fatal crashes resulting in 445 deaths so far this year in Maryland, compared to 454 crashes with 488 fatalities at this time last year.
“Clearly we are seeing an overall decline in highway fatalities, though we cautiously acknowledge that the year is not over,” said Parker F. Williams, a highway administration spokesman.
The Maryland Department of Transportation attributes the drop in highway deaths to the increased use of seat belts: 83 percent of Maryland auto travelers buckled up in 1998 compared to 70 percent this time last year.
“Many lives have been saved simply because more people than ever before are buckling up,” Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. David Mitchell said in a prepared statement.
Transportation officials said interstate highways are probably the safest roads in the state, despite the high speeds and high volume of traffic on those roads.
While there were 11 deaths on Interstate 95 last year and only eight on U.S. Route 301, the fatality rate changes when traffic volume is taken into account. The interstate has a maximum daily volume of 200,000 vehicles while Route 301 has a daily maximum of only 70,000 vehicles, said Tom Hicks, the director of traffic and safety at SHA.
The interstates are safer because of their controlled access, said Hicks, which means cars are not pulling out onto the highway from driveways and shopping centers as on the smaller routes.
“By rate, the safest roads are the interstate highways,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the Potomac chapter of the American Automobile Association. “Most fatalities occur on state roads because they do not have to live up to the same standards as interstates.”
Besides the eight deaths on Route 301 last year, there were six traffic fatalities each on Maryland Routes 450 and 650, according to state police.
Hicks said the situation on Route 301 is not getting any better: Already this year there have been 12 traffic deaths on the road, prompting a study of it by the highway administration. Hicks said the results of that report are expected by the end of November.
“Route 301 has stoplights and people are always pulling out directly into the traffic,” said Anderson. “But the speed limit is still 50 mph.”
Nationally, highway deaths are also at the lowest rate ever recorded, according to a report this week from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. It said there were 1.6 deaths for every 100 million miles of roadway travel.
Maryland’s fatality rate was 19 percent lower than the national rate, according to the NHTSA report, which said the state recorded 1.3 deaths for every 100 million miles in 1997.
Maryland transportation officials said they hope to lower the rate even further with outreach campaigns aimed at increasing seat belt use.