For many years, there was a sign posted strategically at the main gate of Aberdeen Proving Ground and other military installations informing drivers they were about to enter one of the most dangerous places on earth: A public highway.
The New York Times reported last year that nationally the number of traffic deaths had reached a 60-year low in 2010, falling to 32,788. For many years, traffic fatalities in the U.S. had been in the 40,000 to 50,000 range.
By comparison, the National Archives gives the figure 58,193 as the number of service personnel killed as a result of injuries suffered in Vietnam, which includes those who succumbed to injuries as late as 1998. The number of U.S. service personnel killed in Korea is estimated by other sources at 54,000.
It may seem a bit unfair to compare war deaths with highway fatalities in terms of raw numbers. In wartime, after all, those in our armed forces are sent into harm's way where they face death daily. Conversely, no one really expects to be killed driving to the grocery store or home from work.
In all likelihood, this difference in attitude accounts for the horrifically high numbers of people killed in traffic accidents in this country. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines know they're going to be in the line of fire, so they take precautions. Drivers and passengers are all but certain they're not in any danger, so the level of caution exercised isn't comparable to that of people headed into battle.
There's every reason for people who get into cars to be every bit as careful as a soldier on patrol in hostile territory, given the national highway fatality numbers.
Possibly it's a quirk of statistics, or maybe nationally highway deaths are on the uptick as well, but this year roadways in Harford County have been particularly bloody. Even as a county traffic safety task force was being ushered into existence earlier in the week, yet another traffic death victim was claimed in our county, bringing to 16 the number of local roadway fatalities since Jan. 1.
Clearly there is a sentiment among our public officials to do something about the increasingly recurrent tragedies on our roads. In sending the task force off to find solutions to the problem, County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti gave the following show of support: "You tell us what tools you need and we'll figure out how to fund them."
The statement is at once telling of a high degree of desire to do something about the problem and a high level of frustration to determine what that something could be.
When terms like "public education campaign" and "getting the word out about safety" come into play in a situation such as this, it becomes increasingly evident that it's going to be hard for anyone, or any committee, to come up with anything approximating an easy solution.
After all, in 60 years of record keeping in the U.S., no one has figured it out yet.
There is something of a clue in the annual reports of fatalities insofar as the decline from the 48,000 range to the 32,000 range came during the period when it was becoming increasingly a social taboo to drink alcohol and drive. In other words, a major change in public attitude about an important issue of driving safety made a substantial difference.
Unfortunately, drinking and driving has been replaced with another similarly deadly practice, distracted driving. The problem isn't one of being behind the wheel and day dreaming, but one of trying to do something in addition to driving while behind the wheel. Cell phone texting and driving has become a major problem, as have other phone-related distractions.
Drunk or distracted driving are not the only problems. Speeding, aggressive driving, unsafe lane changing and generally being impolite while behind the wheel, all contribute to the dangerous condition of our roadways. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence in court records to indicate many of those who have been killed or who have killed other people in traffic accidents in Harford County have been habitual traffic law breakers.
It will be nice if the county task force on highway safety is able to come up with solutions to prevent the carnage on Harford's roads. In the end, however, the problem often comes down to something as simple as recognizing that far too many people take too lightly the reality that a motor vehicle is too easily converted into a deadly weapon, and with very little effort required on the part of the operator.