If you've been noticing a heavier police presence on major highways in Baltimore County, it's no accident.
As part of a pilot project being watched by state and federal officials, the county Police Department is stepping up enforcement of traffic laws in corridors with high rates of crime and crashes.
Since March, the county has increased patrols in six such corridors - Liberty Road, Baltimore National Pike (U.S. 40 west), Reisterstown Road, York Road, Eastern Avenue and Bel Air Road (U.S. 1 north). The Crash/Crime Corridor Program is part of a broader effort to crack down on aggressive drivers.
At a news conference yesterday, Capt. Howard Hall said the county identified the corridors by analyzing three years of crime and crash data. The department is putting more police in those areas to look for speeding, tailgating, broken lights and other motor vehicle violations. State grants are helping to pay for overtime to allow the patrols.
One of the theories behind the strategy is that society's bad guys are often bad drivers as well. And a routine traffic stop can often lead to arrests on drug or weapons charges or on outstanding warrants, police say.
"How do most criminals get to the scene of the crime? In their car," said Hall.
Cpl. Pat Zito, who heads the traffic enforcement squad at the Cockeysville precinct, said something as simple as a tail light that isn't working can help police identify a serious offender.
"If [drivers] don't keep their cars in order, a lot of times they don't keep their personal lives in order," he said.
Police officials said the project, which will run through the end of the year, is having an impact. Hall said that as of June, there have been decreases in robberies and crashes in four of the corridors.
Jeremy Gunderson, spokesman for the Highway Safety Office of the State Highway Administration, said that if it proves effective, Baltimore County's program could be adopted by other Maryland jurisdictions. He said the National Study Center for Trauma and Emergency Medical Services at the University of Maryland in Baltimore will be evaluating the results of the program.
The state highway agency is helping to pay for the Crash/Crime Corridor Program through grants it administers. The highway administration has also erected 40 signs along the corridors to warn motorists they are in aggressive-driving enforcement zones.
The crash-crime program received praise at the federal level yesterday as James Ports Jr., deputy director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the Baltimore County police were "ahead of the curve."
"Traffic enforcement is crime enforcement," said Ports, a former state delegate and a county resident. "We're not going to tolerate aggressive driving and speeding in Baltimore County. It's not about raising revenue. It's not about raising fines."
Zito said the program is having an effect on traffic on York Road, where his squad enforces traffic laws between the Beltway and Hunt Valley, because motorists have noticed the increased police presence there.
"When we first started, we were writing a ton of tickets, and we are seeing a dropoff," he said. "We are starting to have an impact. But our goal is we have a permanent impact."
See police demonstrating the "Smooth Operator" program at baltimoresun.com/operator