Saved by the belt

December 29, 1992

We offer our condolences to more than 600 families who hav lost loved ones as a result of highway accidents in Maryland this past year. The latest came early yesterday when Interstate 95 turned into an eight-lane skating rink.

The following statistic will be of no solace to those who lost someone, but Maryland, in fact, recorded one of its least costly years ever in terms of traffic fatalities.

The lowest number of highway deaths in Maryland, 616, was recorded in 1964. With only a few days left, 1992 saw 639 deaths on state roads. That's significant in that there are also more than twice as many vehicles registered in the state as in 1964. Also, since the mid-'80s, Maryland has commonly rung up 700 or 800 deaths by motor vehicle accidents each year.

Part of the credit for what we hope is the start of a trend and not a statistical anomaly belongs to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose safe driving campaigns have made many people think twice about operating a vehicle while inebriated. Credit is also due the State Highway Administration for aggressive seat belt awareness campaigns.

Also, police agencies have taken seriously enforcement of the child safety seat and seat belt laws, which were enacted in 1984 and 1986. No state in the Lower 48 outdoes Maryland in U.S. seat-belt use surveys, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

When Maryland officers stop and survey motorists on seat belt use, 75 percent of drivers and front-seat passengers are wearing them. (Only Hawaii does better, with seat belt compliance higher than 80 percent.)

The seat-belt campaigns have attempted to shatter that old canard that motorists could more easily escape a crash if they weren't confined by a belt. The fact is people who are unsecured by a seat belt and ejected from a vehicle in a collision are much more likely to be severely or fatally injured. And even though many new cars come equipped with air bags, manufacturers caution that seat belts must still be worn to protect the occupant in side impact and rollover crashes, which might not trigger an air bag.

While Marylanders should be distressed with the fact that their core city, Baltimore, matched its 1972 record for homicides, they can, at the same time, take heart that their actions have also helped the state see its lowest total of road deaths in nearly that same 20 years.

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