ANNAPOLIS – Maryland has its fewest number of highway fatalities in 30 years, according to statistics released by the State Highway Administration Friday morning.
Highway officials credit strict new laws, aggressive enforcement and widened public education tactics with the drop in deaths.
Last year, the state had 606 highway fatalities and 551 fatal automobile crashes, according to SHA. That number dropped from 1997, when 610 people died in 570 fatal crashes.
“Although drivers still need to be careful, they have a fairly safe state to drive in,” said Valerie Burnette Edgar, spokeswoman for SHA. “Still, every single fatality is one too many for us.”
The state’s traffic death rate is the seventh lowest in the nation, according to the statistics. For every 100 million miles traveled, 1.3 Marylanders are likely to die in a highway crash, a rate 19 percent lower than the national average of 1.6.
The new figures are a marked decline from 1968, the earliest year such statistics are available. In that year, 872 people died in 758 fatal crashes for a fatality rate of 4.6 people killed per 100 million miles traveled.
More astonishing is that the number of miles traveled per year has more than doubled, from 18.8 billion in 1968 to 48 billion last year.
Massachusetts has .88 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled, the lowest rate in the nation, and Montana has the highest number of incidents with 2.82.
Though the state highway organization hasn’t finished organizing the latest statistics by cause, police and highway representatives listed possible reasons for the decline.
The seatbelt law enacted in October 1997 helped to shrink the number of traffic deaths in 1998, Edgar said. This law allows police officers to pull over cars when drivers and front-seat passengers fail to wear belts. “We have seen a dramatic increase in people who are buckling up now,” she said. “That certainly has figured into the decrease.” State police officers have issued nearly 200,000 citations for such seatbelt violations in the past year and estimate that 83 percent of travelers are using belts. “People who take the simple step of buckling their seatbelts increase their chances of surviving a traffic accident substantially,” said 1st Sgt. Laura Lu Herman, with the Maryland State Police. Highway safety groups and police officers also are sending out stronger messages against drunken driving, Edgar said. Their increased attention to the problem has made drivers more aware of the dangers in driving drunk, lowering deaths. More than 36 percent of the 610 traffic-related deaths in Maryland in 1997 were alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition to alcohol, teens were involved in a large number of that year’s highway accidents. In 1997, more than 26 percent of Maryland’s fatal crashes involved drivers 15 to 20 years old, according to NHTSA statistics. State transportation leaders hope that a graduated licensing law, effective July 1, will reduce crashes, specifically teen accidents. Maryland’s licensing restrictions will require that new drivers complete 40 hours of supervised driving and hold a learner’s permit for four months before receiving permanent licenses. “Graduated licensing will enable younger motorists to get more experience and increase their skills in driving,” Herman said. Gov. Parris N. Glendening praised the new statistics and said, “We will do everything in our power to continue this trend and make our roadways even safer. These numbers show clearly that our safety efforts have undeniably saved lives.”