Maryland drivers are off to a surprisingly safe start in 2010, with the number of traffic deaths down a reported 52 percent compared with a year ago.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said that according to state police reports he checks each day, 32 people had died since Jan. 1 on Maryland roads as of Thursday morning, compared with 66 during the same period last year.
"That means 34 lives that have been saved," he told the Maryland Highway Safety Foundation in Annapolis.
Foundation leaders, whose long-term goal is to cut the number of highway deaths in Maryland by half, received the news with guarded optimism.
"I'm not going to jump up and down and claim victory because the rate is down 50 percent in the first six weeks of the year, but it is an extraordinarily positive sign," said foundation co-chairman David H. Nevins.
The preliminary, unaudited numbers certainly reflect in part the driving hiatus that was forced on many Marylanders during this month's twin snowstorms, when the state went almost a full week without a traffic death. But with Maryland traffic deaths historically averaging about 10 to 12 a week, the snow by itself wouldn't explain the entire reduction.
O'Malley suggested that contributing factors include a heightened sense of awareness among drivers of road dangers, stepped-up law enforcement and increased responsiveness to the message that "speed kills." O'Malley also gave credit to young drivers.
"Children today, young drivers, are acting more responsibly when it comes to the issue of drinking and driving," he said.
O'Malley also told the foundation he would sign a bill, if it reaches his desk, that would require ignition interlock devices, which prevent a car from being started if the driver has consumed alcohol, for all those convicted of drunken driving. The measure is a top priority of the foundation and Mothers Against Drunk Driving but it has been met with skepticism by legislators who believe the devices should be mandatory for repeat offenders only.
During the news conference Thursday, the foundation also said it would push for a bill tightening last year's ban on texting while driving to include a prohibition on reading incoming texts while behind the wheel. The group also announced a partnership with the Motor Vehicle Administration to improve driver education and testing to put more emphasis on defensive driving and less on skills such as parallel parking.