OCEAN CITY - The old familiar image has it this way: mom, dad, grandma and three kids, all in a precarious clump of folding chairs, coolers, sand buckets, shovels, body boards and towels, waddle out into eight lanes of Coastal Highway that on busy beach days carry 60,000 cars. Mostly, they make it across just fine.
This summer, reality in Maryland's tourist-clogged ocean resort has proved deadly.
Shocked by four fatal accidents on the busy north-south artery this vacation season, Ocean City officials have begun an all-out effort to improve pedestrian safety. At the top of the list for a 35-member task force appointed this week is deciding how best to pound a common-sense message into jaywalking, beach-bound tourists who too often seem willing to test their luck in 40 mph traffic.
"We can't be everybody's guardian angel, but we've got to make this highway safer," said Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. "As a resort community that spends better than a million dollars a year getting folks to come here, we have a moral obligation to provide a safe environment."
The State Highway Administration and researchers at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore have logged 150 to 203 pedestrian accidents respectively from 1995 through last year.
Though nearly three dozen pedestrians a year are struck in Ocean City, almost all of them amid the commercial clutter of Coastal Highway, fatalities have been few in a city that plays host to 300,000 visitors on a typical summer weekend and 8 million a year, said Tim Hicks, who heads the state's traffic safety office.
Before this summer's four fatalities, six people had been killed in pedestrian accidents in the previous five years: three in 1996, two in 1997 and one last summer, he said.
"One of the problems we have is that Coastal Highway is mostly an urban divided highway, but the conditions there really don't match any similar highway in the state," Hicks said. "It's Ocean City, and there's nothing else that's comparable."
Ocean City residents all seem to have a story about watching blatant jaywalking that could have resulted in tragedy. A particular peeve for maintenance man Robin Cox is joggers who run facing the traffic, often crossing in front of motorists who are attempting to make right turns at stop signs.
"You're making a right on red and you're looking at oncoming traffic from the left," Cox said. "I want to ask them if they jog on the Beltway. If you wouldn't do it at home, you shouldn't do it here."
A two-year study that University of Maryland researchers hope to extend into next year has enlisted help from Ocean City police, who gather detailed information through interviews at each pedestrian accident. The hope, said Michael F. Ballestero, is that patterns will emerge, allowing local officials to target their efforts.
"What we're looking for is whether there are particular areas of Ocean City that are pedestrian hot spots, how often alcohol is a factor, if certain age groups are more at risk," Ballestero said."
Research from the university and the SHA has found that alcohol plays a role in nearly one in three accidents, with 20 percent of injured pedestrians found to be under the influence.
Youth also is a factor, with almost half of pedestrians injured in the past two years under the age of 20, said Ballestero. The four deaths this year have occurred between 68th and 120th streets, where Coastal Highway is divided by a median, but 60 percent of pedestrian mishaps occurred in downtown Ocean City, below 20th Street, where the speed limit drops, where there is no median and where there are fewer lanes.
The research found that although young men and teen-agers are in more danger from almost everything from shootings to auto accidents, women and girls accounted for almost half of the pedestrians who were struck in Ocean City.
The University of Maryland study found that a majority of accidents involved pedestrians who were attempting to cross to the west side of the highway, perhaps indicating that people returning from a long day on the beach have less patience for traffic signals that make pedestrians and drivers wait up to two minutes to cross Coastal Highway from side streets. Pedestrians were at fault in about 75 percent of the accidents, according to the study.
City officials have concentrated their efforts on persuading tourists to use marked walkways instead of crossing the highway at unmarked intersections or, worse, making a dash into traffic at midblock.
"We've had a run of bad luck this summer, but at least it has people taking a closer look at how to improve things," said Terry Hough, who heads the city's task force. "The first thing is to get the word out in as many ways as possible for people to use the crosswalks, but there are a lot of good ideas."