Highway carnage demands action



More than 600 people a year die on Maryland roads, and Edward F. Kuespert of Ellicott City doesn't like it one bit.

He's upset enough that he sat down and typed out an impassioned, three-page letter calling for a concerted effort to reduce this highway carnage through improved driver education and stepped-up traffic enforcement.

He didn't e-mail it. He sent it to The Sun in an actual envelope with real postage - a rarity in the brief tenure of the column.

There's something refreshing about Kuespert's dedication on this issue. Every five years you have a toll of 9/11 proportions on Maryland highways, and somebody actually cares.

"During 2005 over 600 persons died on our streets and highways," Kuespert wrote. "If we value each life at only $1 million, that is a $600 million loss to Maryland families." He estimates the cost of traffic accidents in medical treatment and property damage is even more.

"Can any state afford to lose this much in loss of life, health and property damage?" he wrote. "I guess that answer must be yes because we don't seem concerned enough to reduce it."

By coincidence, a few days after receiving Kuespert's letter I came across an old report called "Halving Road Fatalities" - which was distributed at a Maryland Department of Transportation function on highway safety.

The report is a case study from the Australian state of Victoria, home to the city of Melbourne, laying out how to do just that. Victoria, with a population roughly equal to Maryland's 5.2 million, went from an annual average of 739 road deaths in 1988-1989 to an annual average of 337 in 2003-2004.

That's a 54 percent drop. Maryland's equivalent: a 7.4 percent decline from 699 to 647.

That's a lot of Australian lives that were saved. And a lot of Marylanders who weren't. (Maryland's toll has since increased to 652 in 2006 after dropping to 614 in 2005. Victoria's down to 323.)

So what made the difference?

Victoria had political leaders who took the carnage seriously, said enough is enough, and took serious actions to curb traffic misbehavior. Some of the measures seem draconian to American sensibilities. But it's the price you'd have to pay to get a similar result.

After a surge in road fatalities in the late 1980s, Victoria adopted a series of measures aimed at reducing the road death rate by half. The state decreed the immediate loss of a license for a second drunken-driving offense. The legal limit in Victoria is .05 percent blood-alcohol content, compared with .08 in Maryland.

Legal penalties for driving offenses were increased. The equivalent of Maryland's insurance "points" system was toughened. Victoria also increased penalties on companies whose drivers commit traffic offenses.

The Australian state also adopted measures that might not pass constitutional muster here. It increased its random breath testing of drivers fivefold. By the early part of this decade, Victoria drivers had a one in three chance of being randomly tested in any given year. The state also conducts random saliva screening for drug use.

Some of the other measures adopted in Victoria would clearly be constitutional here, but would face a bruising political fight.

For instance, Victoria automatically takes away the license of a driver who exceeds the speed limit by more than 25 kilometers per hour. That's roughly 15.5 mph - meaning drivers on the Baltimore Beltway who go 71 mph would get their licenses yanked. That would clear out a little congestion.

Unlike the Maryland General Assembly, Victoria's legislature hasn't wimped out over adopting a statewide speed camera program. The Aussie state introduced them in 1989 and allowed points to be imposed based on camera-detected offenses.

(Unfair, you say? Well, if you're a safe driver but your kid is speeding, the car is still being operated in a risky manner. And insurance rates are all about risk.)

Since 1989, Victoria has steadily ratcheted up camera programs for both speeding and red-light running. It's adopted new and particularly effective "point-to-point" cameras that measure sustained speeding. (Australian speeders hate them.) Over the howls of the opposition party, the government has cut the informal "cushion" between the posted limit and the speed that ensures a ticket to as little as 3 kilometers per hour (2 mph).

These enforcement measures have been matched by a massive public education campaign financed by Victoria's state-sponsored vehicle insurance monopoly, which has a vested interest in accident prevention. The ads campaigns have a distinctly Aussie style. "Only a little bit over? You bloody idiot" reads one billboard.

According to the report, the key to success is "political leadership by the ruling government."

That means you, Governor O'Malley. You can tinker around the edges, as your predecessors did, or do your level best to put the state on a path to cut the human road kill rate in half. That's 300 lives a year, or a 9/11 every decade. It would be akin to abolishing murder in Baltimore.

All you have to do is take on some of the angriest voices in Maryland. (Don't expect any love on WBAL radio.) You will, however, have Edward F. Kuespert -and a lot of people who agree with him - in your corner.


Next week: More interesting ideas from Down Under.

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