Maryland highway safety officials launched a fresh effort yesterday to overcome the increasing problem of aggressive drivers, with state and local police patrols aimed at identifying dangerous drivers and tough punishments for those who are caught.
The war on aggressive driving, which started in the Washington suburbs in 1997, is moving to the Baltimore area and Eastern Shore this year for the first time.
Judy Hively has joined the effort.
An acknowledged former speeder, Hively changed her driving habits about eight months ago, when an 18-year-old driving more than 90 mph on the Baltimore Beltway clipped the rear of her mother's car.
Ruth Hively, 52, died six days later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The teen-age driver, who was uninjured, is expected to receive a fine when she appears in court in July, Judy Hively said.
Since her mother's accident, the focus of Judy Hively's daily commute from the Eastern Shore to Annapolis has shifted from making good time to steering clear of speeders, tailgaters and unsafe lane-changers.
"I'm looking for stiffer punishments for aggressive driving," Hively told a crowd gathered in a Camden Yards parking lot where the state program was announced yesterday. "I want drivers to be held more responsible for injuring and killing innocent people."
The campaign centers on four weeklong waves of law enforcement, the first of which began Monday and ends Sunday. Others will be held in June, July and August.
"We would like to stigmatize aggressive driving in the same way that MADD has so effectively stigmatized drunk driving," said Anne Ferro, Maryland's motor vehicle administrator.
The Maryland penalty for aggressive driving is stiffer than ever: A law making it a misdemeanor punishable by a $350 fine and five driving-record points has been in effect since Oct. 1.
Police can issue an aggressive-driving citation if a motorist commits three or more traffic offenses, such as speeding, unsafe lane changes, running a red light or tailgating, during a single act of driving.
State Police Sgt. Janet Harrison and Tfc. Michael Allmond said they witness reckless driving behavior on a daily basis.
The two videotape traffic offenses on Maryland highways from a large, unmarked silver van.
Offenders can't be ticketed -- state law prohibits a ticket based on videotaping only -- but they receive a letter warning them about their behavior. In 80 hours of taping last year, the officers generated about 3,500 notices, Harrison said.
"It's scary out there, really scary," she said. "There have even been a couple of times that I've had to pray for my own safety when drivers come within inches of the van."
State Trooper Rose Blitz, who patrols Interstate 95 from the eastern Baltimore City line to Harford County, said most of the speeders she stops say they didn't realize how fast they were going or insist they weren't exceeding the speed limit.
"I've had people fly by me at 100 mph, and they'll tell me they were not speeding -- that I must be wrong," she said.
Drivers usually slow down -- and calm down -- when they see a patrol car approaching, she said.
Sgt. Joe Van Seeter of the Harford County sheriff's office traffic unit said the program, called Smooth Operator, reminds drivers that officers are "out there looking at their behavior."
But State Police Lt. Col. William Arrington, chief of field operations, said he worries that public-awareness campaigns are failing to cope with a rising tide of aggressive driving.
In 1997, officers issued 62,000 citations during the campaign. Last year, they issued 92,500 citations and more than 7,000 warnings, he said.
If education doesn't persuade people to drive safer, Arrington said, "we'll start using the kind of convincing that results in fines, insurance points ... and sometimes even jail time."