Sharp turn on highway safety Road bills: Lawmakers seemed more willing to confront reckless or risky driving.

April 12, 1997

ONE WELCOME transformation during the recent session in Annapolis was the General Assembly's embrace of bills related to highway safety. It's an area of lawmaking perennially controversial because it affects so many, and because so many have a strong sense of individualism about their cars -- a sentiment the car advertisements so frequently espouse.

The legislature agreed to make Maryland the 12th state in the nation with primary seat-belt enforcement. Previously, police had to witness another violation to cite someone for failure to wear a seat-belt. The General Assembly approved the use of cameras at traffic signals to photograph and cite drivers who run red lights. It also made Maryland the 15th state to require use of headlights for visibility when windshield wipers are on. Also, a committee quashed an attempt to repeal the motorcycle helmet law.

Del. Betty Workman of Western Maryland had filed the headlight bill for years, always to see it die. This year, she sensed that legislators were moved by their own experiences, on top of the support her bill had always received from police and trucking associations.

Indeed, anecdotes of accidents involving lawmakers, their staffers and relatives seemed persuasive to a body that not long ago increased highway speed limits and seemed to harbor a devil-may-care attitude about these issues. The governor himself escaped serious injury in a collision while en route to the state capital last winter, thanks to safety air bags.

Maryland highways are safer by some measures. Drunken driving deaths are down one-third from a decade ago, and the state is tied for 13th for fewest deaths per licensed driver. But road deaths remain more than 600 a year in Maryland, and 40,000 nationally.

The legislature is to be commended for its support of highway-safety measures. Philosophical concerns took a back seat to pragmatism this year.

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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