WASHINGTON- Alcohol-related fatal accidents are more likely to occur on rural roads in Maryland than on urban roads, according to a Capital News Service analysis of fatal crash statistics from 1995-1999.
Of the 725 alcohol-related fatalities in which police noted a road type, 379, or 52.3 percent, were on rural roads. The higher number of alcohol-related deaths on rural roads came even though those roads carried less than half of the traffic of urban roads in 1999.
The U.S. Department of Transportation statistics came as no surprise to traffic experts, who point to the poor design, higher speeds and lack of enforcement on rural roads. Lack of alternative transportation and longer response times for emergency medical services also were factors mentioned by experts.
“This is the typical pattern we’ve seen for decades,” said John V. Moulden, the president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving. “People might think the accidents happen in the more heavily populated areas, but the worst accidents often occur in rural ones.”
Jackie Gillan, the vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said rural roads are “poorly designed . . . windy with narrow lanes, no shoulders and poor lighting.”
Conversely, cities tend to have safer roads than rural areas, said a spokeswoman for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Automobile Association.
“The urban areas have straighter roads that are less hazardous,” said Myra Wieman, the AAA spokeswoman. “Many rural roads are not easy to navigate in the best of conditions when the driver has not been drinking.”
The data also showed that rural counties had a disproportionate share of fatal alcohol-related accidents.
Baltimore City had 12.3 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2000 census, had only 6.5 percent of the state’s fatal alcohol-related accidents. Montgomery County, with 16.5 percent of the population, also had only 6.5 percent of the accidents.
In contrast, Caroline County, with only 0.6 percent of the state’s population, had 2.4 percent of the state’s fatal alcohol-related accidents. Charles County, with 2.3 percent of the population, had 5.2 percent of the fatal alcohol-related accidents.
This trend was not universal. Prince George’s County, with 15.1 percent of the state’s population, had 17.4 percent of the alcohol-related accidents, and Allegany County had only 1 percent of the fatalities with 1.4 percent of the population.
Allegany County highway safety coordinator Janie Hutcherson credited the efforts of government officials for keeping alcohol-related accidents relatively low in her county.
“We’ve actually had years with no fatalities,” Hutcherson said. “I think the reason is because we do a lot of education and we use grant money for overtime for police officers to do enforcement.”
Wieman said lax enforcement in many rural areas was one of the problems.
“People in cities take more precautions because they fear getting caught,” she said. “Urban areas have a much higher level of enforcement including more DUI checkpoints.”
Hutcherson said one of the reasons for this is lack of resources. “Perhaps some of these other counties just don’t have the funding,” she said.
Moulden agreed, saying the lack of funding and resources in rural areas contributes to their problems with creating deterrence.
“To be effective, you have to do (sobriety checkpoints and other enforcement) on a regular and routine basis, and many small departments don’t have the resources or the manpower,” he said.
He said that’s why it’s important that the state work with local authorities to help provide the equipment and other resources they might need.
Maryland State Police spokesman Lt. Bud Frank said his agency does work with local authorities to identify “problem areas.”
“We aggressively patrol the roadways that we find are more prone to having alcohol problems,” he said.
The question that remains is what can be done next to work on the problem of rural alcohol-impaired driving, said Moulden.
He suggested toughening laws for repeat offenders and innovative ideas such as North Carolina’s “batmobile,” what he described as a mobile testing and processing sobriety checkpoint center.
“This is an issue that really needs to be raised,” Moulden said. “We want people to know that rural DWI’s are a big problem.”
Gillan called it “a real public health problem, and there’s no magic bullet.”