A to-do list for road safety

GETTING THERE

July 14, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

The president of the Baltimore City Council was there, promising to work on her bad habit of texting while driving.

The Baltimore and Howard county executives also showed up. The chiefs of the Motor Vehicle Administration and State Highway Administration attended, along with the guy who runs the state's toll bridges and tunnels. A slew of police chiefs, highway contractors, public works engineers and other movers and shakers took part.

The cause was that important.

The event was last Tuesday's inaugural public meeting of the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation, an organization launched this year with the worthy - and attainable - goal of cutting the state's annual toll of traffic deaths in half.

Since Maryland's carnage average over five years stands at 644 annually, we're talking a lot of lives if the foundation can achieve its goal. Let's say you can cut out 322 fatalities a year and sustain that over a decade. The total would be the equivalent of preventing another Sept. 11 attack.

That type of change won't come easily. As the foundation's chief founder, engineering company president Fred Mirmiran told the group: "We have to change our culture. We have to change our way of life."

This high-powered group of folks came together and spent a couple of hours talking about practical, proven, tested ways of achieving that reduction. They discussed ignition interlocks to prevent repeat drunken driving; speed cameras; and driver retraining. It was not a group given to flights of fancy or empty words. This foundation is serious.

When the group broke up, those who attended were offered forms to submit additional ideas. Filling out forms is too much like work. But here are a few ideas the foundation might want to play with:

1. Dangerous driver registry. Why not adapt the idea behind the state's sex offender registry and apply it to dangerous drivers? When somebody has killed another person through bad driving or has racked up multiple serious offenses such as drunken driving, why not put their names on a Web-based registry? Don't let them drive unless they display a black-bordered license plate proclaiming their status (and ensuring police scrutiny).

Some tender souls might argue that such a registry would stigmatize the offenders. The answer: Precisely. Sex offenders may disgust us more, but dangerous drivers kill more people. And morally, they're just as creepy - putting their own gratification before others' health and welfare in the same way a sex freak does. So treat road menaces as perverts. They are.

2. Don't try to lower speed limits. That idea was tried in the 1970s. It bred a counter-reaction that undermined respect for speed limits generally. A better strategy would be to go after the extreme speeders who virtually no one wants to tolerate. The long-term goal should be to gradually chip away at a culture that trivializes, excuses and even glorifies speeding. One good move: Push for adoption of Virginia's approach of charging anyone going 20 or more miles over the limit with reckless driving.

3. Curb the PBJs. All over the state, traffic court judges hand out probation before judgment to serious and repeat offenders. You're not going to get rid of PBJs because everyone wants to get off from the occasional ticket, but perhaps the General Assembly can be persuaded to limit them to minor infractions. Somebody caught going 80 mph has no business getting a PBJ. Ever.

4. Confiscate cars. Repeat offenders will keep driving as long as they have wheels. Suspended licenses don't deter them. So after several incidents of bad road behavior, all cars registered in the offender's name should be seized for a month or so. If they keep it up, confiscate the vehicles and sell them at auction. For inspiration, the foundation could take a look at Australia's laws cracking down on "hoons" - a lovely Aussie term for highway goons.

5. Next time in Annapolis. Meeting in Baltimore the first time was great, but the heavy lifting will have to be done in Annapolis. The first meeting drew a distinguished turnout, but not a legislator was in sight. The next one should be in Annapolis, with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller as the honored guests. You get the presiding officers to buy into your goal, those recalcitrant committees where safety bills go to die will fall in line.

6. Bankroll some research. The traffic law enforcement system in this state is broken in so many ways it's not funny. But before it can be fixed, it needs to be studied. If the foundation can raise the money - and I'm betting it can - some of those smart folks at the University of Maryland and other colleges could take it apart piece by piece and deliver a powerful report.

7. Enlist victims and survivors. MADD has done a great job mobilizing people whose lives have been torn apart by drunken drivers. But thousands of Marylanders are victims or survivors of victims of traffic crashes with other causes. Their passion - and their stories - can help the foundation's effort.

8. Don't be afraid to lose. Even bills that have no chance of passage can draw public attention to serious problems. So encourage friendly legislators to introduce legislation that might not have a chance - now. In five years it may be the law.

9. Have some fun doing this. You're off to a good start. Especially if you can get Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to bag the DWT.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Find Mike Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/ dresser

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