Walking dangerously

December 08, 2004

TRAFFIC ENGINEERS have an idea that might save lives. Beginning next spring, several hundred pedestrian crossing signs are going to be installed on the center lines of certain roads by the Maryland State Highway Administration. Drivers will encounter these warnings about 30 feet before an intersection. They are meant to serve as reminders: Look out for pedestrians ahead. Simple, right? But this kind of basic consciousness-raising turns out to be more important than you might think.

Last year, 4,827 pedestrians died in traffic accidents, or about 11.3 percent of all American traffic fatalities, according to a recent study. Mile for mile, that makes walking our most dangerous mode of transportation -- and it's getting worse.

In Maryland in 2003, there were 115 pedestrian fatalities compared with 105 the previous year, a nearly 10 percent increase, according to the study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. In most Maryland jurisdictions, there are more pedestrian traffic fatalities than homicides. But while the state spent $3.2 billion on transportation projects over the previous five years, only 0.6 percent of that went to improve conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists, or about 56 cents per person -- a dime a year.

Not all the news is bad. The report points out that cities like Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles saw death rates drop by 20 percent to 30 percent. The difference? Experts say it takes the three E's -- education, enforcement and engineering. Drivers need to be reminded to watch out for pedestrians, and vice versa. Police must enforce jaywalking and other pedestrian-related laws. The state, county and city highway departments need to upgrade intersections to better protect pedestrians.

Unfortunately, communities rarely succeed at all three. One place where pedestrian safety has gotten better is Ocean City. Over the past four years, the resort town's pedestrian-involved accidents have declined 16 percent thanks to an aggressive safety campaign. The local effort has included such innovations as warnings printed on cocktail coasters and timers on "Walk"/"Don't Walk" signals so pedestrians know how much time they have to cross.

That's the kind of model that ought to be pursued statewide and most especially in places such as Prince George's County and Baltimore, where pedestrian accidents happen most often. Signs on state roads are a good start. But it will take more to make -- or prevent -- an impact.

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