Traffic deaths down 20% in city, police say

More aggressive ticketing is one reason, they say

15,000 citations issued in 2002

No fatal crashes reported at red-light camera areas

January 05, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Traffic deaths dropped 20 percent last year on Baltimore roadways, reversing three years of slight increases, according to police who credited more aggressive traffic enforcement by officers and the deterrent influence of red-light cameras.

Last year, 44 people died in city traffic accidents, down from 55 in 2001.

Police officials said a $200,000 grant that funded overtime for the department's traffic enforcement unit helped its officers nearly double the number of tickets they issued last year -- to more than 15,000.

For the third year in a row, police also reported no fatal accidents at intersections controlled by the city's 47 red-light cameras. The cameras, which snap photos of vehicles running red lights, led to the issuing of more than 117,000 tickets, which carry fines of $75 each.

"The main ingredient that alters people's driving behavior in a positive manner is enforcement," said Lt. Paul B. Sheppard, commander of the department's traffic unit.

The most recent available statistics show that officers issued more tickets for moving violations last fiscal year -- which ran from July 1, 2001, to June 30, 2002 -- than in the previous fiscal year. But city police -- preoccupied with fighting violent crime -- are unable to give traffic enforcement a high priority.

Only Sheppard's small unit of three sergeants and 15 officers focuses on traffic concerns, and even those officers are not assigned full time to traffic enforcement. They also direct traffic at Orioles and Ravens games, provide security for visiting dignitaries, and sometimes lead funeral processions.

"We only have so many resources," said Sheppard, whose unit also includes accident investigators and several officers who patrol the city on horseback.

While the crime-fighting efforts of the 3,300-member department is aided by computer-assisted analysis that pinpoints problem areas, the traffic unit doesn't have the same resources. It relies on handwritten logs and has not conducted an examination of serious accidents in several years, Sheppard said.

Blaming staffing problems for the lack of accident studies, Sheppard said he hoped "to do a more comprehensive analysis to better target" traffic problems this year.

At the request of The Sun, Sheppard conducted a preliminary examination of the 42 fatal accidents that resulted in 44 deaths last year. Among the findings were that 17 pedestrians were killed, representing 39 percent of total traffic deaths. Also included in the fatalities were two bicyclists and two motorcyclists.

Traffic fatalities in the city had increased each year since 1998, when it recorded 44 deaths. Totals statewide and for other jurisdictions have not been tallied for last year. In 2001, Maryland recorded 662 traffic fatalities, according to Maryland State Police.

Officers in Sheppard's unit say they hope to prevent more accidents by writing more tickets and getting motorists to drive less aggressively and wear seat belts.

On Thursday during evening rush hour, officers Tim Hughes and Robert Gordon were in a squad car on the 1500 block of W. Lombard St. in the Union Square neighborhood. Residents have long complained about aggressive driving along Lombard Street, a three-lane road that has a 25-mph speed limit.

"They fly down here like you wouldn't believe," Gordon said.

Within seconds of taking out a radar gun, standing on the curb and pointing it down Lombard Street, Hughes caught his first speeder -- a man driving a gold Volkswagen traveling 50 mph.

During the next hour and a half, the officers pulled over driver after driver, most for going between 15 to 20 mph over the speed limit. Several were not wearing seat belts.

"It's like bing, bing, bing, bing," Gordon said. "Every time, I step out there, I'll get somebody."

Not everyone was happy about the officers' efforts.

Jeremy Gordon, 23, a pizza delivery driver who was dropping off a friend at school before going to work, was clocked going 43 mph in his red pickup.

Though upset about the ticket, Gordon was also philosophical. "I really would like to follow the traffic laws better," Gordon said. "I was in a hurry. ... You have to follow the traffic laws so the social order is preserved."

But others said the officers should be concentrating on other city ills -- such as cracking down on guns and drugs. Ricky Goode, 40, was clocked at 48 mph in his pickup truck.

"All they do is sit around here all day," Goode said. "It's entrapment. I couldn't have been going 48, no way. They have a lot of other things to be doing. They are messing with hard-working men. All they want to do is give you a ticket."

After writing more than a dozen tickets, the two officers packed up their gear and began patrolling the streets for other traffic violators.

At West Pratt and Greene streets, a woman opened the back door to a Dodge Dynasty and apparently called for help. The officers pulled the car over and quickly determined that the Dodge's temporary license tag was invalid. They also believed that the driver might be intoxicated. After checking the driver's coordination on the side of the road, Hughes searched the man's pockets and found six glass vials containing what he suspected was cocaine residue.

The officers let the woman and another passenger go, but arrested the driver on charges of possessing drugs and drug paraphernalia, along with several traffic offenses, including driving while intoxicated.

"You never know what you'll get in a traffic stop," Hughes said.

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