Md. drivers ease up on gas pedal enough to free federal funds

January 06, 1991|By Susan Schoenberger

In 1990, a year in which state police cracked down on speeders, Maryland drivers eased up on the pedal just enough to put the state back into compliance with federal limits on speeding.

Slightly fewer than half of drivers traveling in Maryland -- 49.6 percent -- exceeded the 55-mph limit in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 1990, according to the State Highway Administration.

That number falls just within the federal government's standard that no more than 50 percent of drivers can exceed the limit. If they do -- as 52.9 percent of Maryland drivers did in 1989 -- federal highway funds are withheld until the state can demonstrate efforts to slow drivers down.

Drivers in Maryland traveled at an average speed of 58.2 mph on interstate highways in the year ending Sept. 30, 1989. Last year, they slowed down to an average speed of 57.6 mph, State Highway Administration statistics show.

While drivers have eased up a bit, state highway officials say it's difficult to determine just what made them slow down. Highway officials said the random nature of the state's monitoring system -- 34 sites are checked for one 24-hour period, four times each year -- can account for variations from year to year.

"It all depends on how lucky you are when you monitor," said Woodrow L. Hood III, a traffic analyst for the State Highway Administration. "If it happens to snow or rain the day you go out there, you're lucky."

But Mr. Hood didn't discount the state police speed-reduction program, called "Clickit and Ticket," which proved effective for the last seven months of the 1990 fiscal year.

"I'm sure 'Clickit and Ticket' has had an effect, too," he said.

State police began "Clickit and Ticket" in March. The program, which refers to a radar and computer system that measures a car's speed with the click of a switch, is an effort to reduce speeds on heavily traveled highways and to reduce highway deaths and serious accidents.

About 1,000 troopers assigned to the task have been ticketing those speeding excessively as well as those traveling just a few miles over the 55 mph limit. During the three-month summer period, when speeds tend to increase, state police issued 49,728 tickets on interstate highways, said Chuck Jackson, state police spokesman.

Mr. Jackson said the program was a response to the number of speed-related fatalities and to complaints from the public about the menace of speeding motorists. The slight drop in speeds last year is encouraging if it signals the beginning of a trend, he said.

"We were trying to see how many lives we could save, not how many tickets we could write," he said.

Lives were indeed saved, though it was unclear how big a role the state police program played.

In 1990, 718 drivers died in traffic accidents on Maryland roads, ,, according to state police -- 32 fewer than in 1989 and 76 fewer than in 1988.

Mr. Jackson said the effort to reduce speeding -- a factor in about one-third of highway deaths -- will be the key to a continuing decline. The drop in highway deaths during the 1980s has been the result of stiffer penalties and public awareness about drunken driving and the wearing of seat belts, he said.

The most difficult part about slowing drivers down is the publicity required to remind them of the state police ticketing effort.

"Early on, with a great deal of publicity, there was a marked

decrease in speed," Mr. Jackson said. "Any time you have aggressive enforcement, speeds go down. But if that lags, especially the marketing side of it, we do notice that speeds again creep up."

In addition to promoting public awareness, state police are testing new technologies to measure speed. A laser speed gun being tested around the state cannot be detected by radar detectors, Mr. Jackson said.

John Webster, a transportation engineer with the Federal Highway Administration's Maryland division, said Maryland would be given back any highway funds that were withheld in 1989 because the state had returned to compliance in 1990.

The FHA hasn't determined the amount of funds to be returned, butMr. Webster said the amount would be significant enough to justify the efforts the state has made to decrease the number of speeders.

"It's enough, particularly with Maryland's budget problems right

now," he said.

Mr. Webster said the state's effort to slow drivers had been effective.

"They have instituted a number of things that would help their speed monitoring, most of it associated with state police," said Mr. Webster. "This is reflected in the fact that the numbers [of speeders] are down, while other states are still having a problem."

In 1989, Maryland was one of five states where more than half of drivers exceeded the 55 mph limit. In 1990, seven states, not including Maryland, exceeded the federal guidelines, Mr. Webster said.

More than $5 million in highway funds was withheld from Maryland in 1985 because 55.9 percent of drivers in the state exceeded the 55 mph limit on major arteries. The money was released to the state in 1987 after the state demonstrated efforts to reduce speed.

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