ANNAPOLIS – One summer afternoon in 2001, Ocean City Police officers placed yellow tape around a bar on 49th Street, forbidding pedestrians from crossing the street there.
To the dismay of police, though, numerous walkers eschewed a nearby crosswalk and breached the tape to cross Coastal Highway, an eight-lane road that bisects the popular Eastern Shore resort town.
“No matter how much we tried to direct them to the crosswalk,” said Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, who was then a patrol officer, “people were still darting out in the middle of the road.”
None of those pedestrians died or were injured.
They were the lucky ones.
From 2000-2004, police received an average of 54 reports annually of pedestrians injured in auto accidents, according to a Capital News Service analysis of databases provided by police. Eight pedestrians were killed in accidents during that time.
About 10,000 people live in Ocean City, but the town’s population swells to an average of 305,000 on summer weekends, said media services manager Donna Abbott, making it Maryland’s second-most populous city in the summer.
That congestion, including many rowdy, careless vacationers, makes accidents inevitable. Tourists pay little attention to crosswalks or digital timers on traffic signals telling them when to cross Coastal Highway, preferring to cross when and where they please.
Only about one pedestrian died annually in accidents on Coastal Highway from 1995 until the summer of 2000 — when 4 were killed.
Since that summer, town officials have succeeded in reducing the number of incidents in part through a rare public education program.
“We’ve tried everything to get the word out,” DiPino said. “I think it is” working.
Town officials created a pedestrian safety task force, which produced ads, distributed pedestrian-safety messages on restaurant napkins and signs, installed crossing timers and conducted studies.
Police did their part, running behavioral tests such as one where undercover officers stepped out onto the highway to see if cars would stop or slow down. Few did.
The task force’s work appears to have helped.
Police received one-third fewer calls involving pedestrian accidents last year than in 2000, and there have been four pedestrian fatalities since 2000.
Tourism numbers during that time have been stable, Abbott said, at just over 4 million visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.
Despite the town’s efforts, though, traffic and pedestrian habits are not better, a few residents said.
James Walker, who has owned a home in Ocean City for 28 years, and other locals interviewed for this story do not drive on Coastal Highway on summer weekends.
Too many pedestrians dangerously cross the highway and many motorists far exceed the speed limit, Walker said.
“Coastal Highway is not dangerous. It’s the stupid people that don’t pay attention that are dangerous,” Walker said.
DiPino and Ocean City Mayor James Mathias agreed that the task force’s work has not stopped dangerous pedestrian behavior, but it has curbed it.
“You’re going to have some people that are just going to run out in the middle of the road,” said DiPino. “They get impatient.”
With numerous distractions for drivers and the constant weekly turn-around of visitors, Mathias said, pedestrian safety is up to pedestrians.
“It’s unrelenting,” Mathias said. “There is a lot going on on our highway. You have to be very alert, very patient.”