Campaign to reduce highway deaths begins

Driver education, road engineering, emergency response among topics for workshops


Year in, year out, the story is about the same: Somewhere between 600 and 670 people die in Maryland traffic crashes.

They die in work zones. They die at intersections. They die because motorists are drunk, drowsy, distracted, aggressive, inadequately trained or going too fast. And all are part of a toll that many have come to regard as an inevitability.

About 300 people from the private sector and from state, local and federal agencies gathered in Linthicum Heights yesterday to develop a plan to bring down that seemingly intractable number.

Police officers, highway safety engineers, emergency rescue workers, public health officials, educators and relatives of victims were among those who met in workshops to exchange ideas. Coincidentally, some were delayed by a fatal accident that shut down the Baltimore Beltway yesterday morning.

The exercise was part of a state effort - required under the current federal transportation funding bill - to devise a Strategic Highway Safety Plan in an effort to reduce the number of crashes, fatalities and injuries on the roads.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, co-chairman of the executive committee in charge of drafting the plan, said the purpose of the conference was to broaden the safety effort to include disciplines besides law enforcement and highway engineers.

"This is a public health issue, not just a highway safety issue," he said. Participants will meet several times to prepare a report for delivery to the Federal Highway Administration by the Sept. 30 deadline, Flanagan said.

Flanagan took part in a news conference joined by Clif and Barbie Tompkins, who attended the meeting to advocate for better driver education and for help for parents in teaching teenage children to drive.

The issue was personal for the Prince Frederick couple. Their 7-year-old son, Jared, died in a crash last year in Illinois. At the wheel was their daughter, Nicole, then 18.

Clif Tompkins said the crash occurred when his daughter attempted to pass a slow-moving truck but was forced to swerve back into her lane by a car that sped by her in the passing lane. Overcorrecting, she lost control of the vehicle, he said. Four of five family members survived.

"We didn't teach her enough," Tompkins said, adding that the educational programs offered in the school system were insufficient.

"Parents cannot just go out there and teach their kids how to drive because they've been driving 25 years," he said. "We were wrong. We gambled with our children's lives and we lost."

Clif Tompkins said the ideas he would push at the conference include developing programs to help parents teach their children and setting aside places where new drivers can safely practice evasive maneuvers.

Flanagan outlined seven "emphasis areas" in which participants are to develop recommendations: prevention of impaired driving, better use of data, engineering improvements, increased use of passenger belts and other safety devices, improving driver competency, preventing aggressive driving and improving emergency response.

State Highway Administrator Neal J. Pedersen said the goal of substantially reducing traffic fatalities is not out of reach. He said that by adopting a process such as the one begun by the state yesterday, the Australian state of Victoria cut traffic fatalities by 54 percent over a four-year period.

"Thinking you can do it just through enforcement is not going to work," Pedersen said.

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