Among all the games of chance played by Ocean City vacationers this summer, one is proving to be a nightmare for officials who can't seem to stop it.
Pedestrians — many of them jaywalking — are being struck with alarming regularity. So far this year, there have been 22 vehicle-pedestrian accidents, two of them fatal. Last year there were 19 accidents with no fatalities, and in 2010, there were 29, with one fatality.
Almost all of the accidents occurred on Ocean City's Main Street, Coastal Highway, a nine-mile ribbon of blacktop eight lanes wide.
"Pedestrians aren't using common sense," said Michael Levy, an Ocean City police officer and spokesman, as he delivered 100 safety posters to municipal buses. "It's very difficult to enforce common sense."
It's not that officials and business and civic leaders aren't trying to make the highway safer.
Before the start of the season, state highway engineers selected three dangerous intersections between 19th and 49th streets for crosswalk upgrades. The agency also is conducting a pedestrian safety study focused on the highway between Convention Center Drive and Route 90 (62nd Street).
A major challenge is reaching a transient population," said Donnie Drewer, the State Highway Administration's district manager.
"We become Maryland's second-largest city every summer, but every week our clientele keeps changing and we have to start all over again," he said.
In addition to the bus posters Levy was delivering, public service announcements run on radio stations and the local cable TV channels. After a recent meeting, Ocean City officials and the State Highway Administration agreed to begin using temporary electronic road signs to remind pedestrians to use crosswalks and walk smart.
Seacrets, a popular nightspot at 49th Street and Coastal Highway, has set aside space on its property for taxis and buses to pick up patrons at the end of the night, and has its employees directing patrons toward marked crosswalks.
Still, the accidents keep coming. So far this year, pedestrians have popped out of bushes in the median strip, ignored crosswalk signs and stepped into oncoming traffic before looking both ways. One man, in flip-flops and smelling of alcohol, managed to do all three before running into the fender of a taxi and cracking his skull on the windshield.
Tragically, a 15-year-old Western Maryland girl was struck and killed on June 5 when she and a group of friends darted across the highway against a "No Walk" sign to catch a bus.
"People do things in Ocean City that they ordinarily wouldn't do in other places," Drewer said. "When they come here, they're not just walking across the street. They're trying to control the kids, carrying the lunch, carrying the beach chairs, carrying the sodas. The last thing they're thinking about is Coastal Highway."
On the other side of the equation, drivers are distracted, too.
"They know where they want to go, but they don't know where they are. They're looking everywhere but straight ahead. You put the two together and they just don't mix," Drewer said. "People go into vacation mode, and they forget their logical minds."
In about 60 percent of the incidents, alcohol — on the part of the pedestrian, the driver or both — was a factor, Ocean City police said.
A grand jury indicted a Virginia man on two counts of negligent homicide in connection with a hit-and-run accident on Memorial Day that killed a Towson University student. The driver, Diogo Miller Facchini, had a blood-alcohol level "significantly" above the legal limit, Levy said. The pedestrian, Matthew Jude Cheswick, was not in a crosswalk but had almost reached the curb when he was struck.
Scott Studds, general manager at Seacrets, said he talks regularly with the police and highway officials about ways to improve safety. The club's marquee carries a pedestrian safety message, and at closing time on busy nights, the nightclub runs a video on its TV screens reminding patrons to be cautious.
This year, it removed all parking along 49th Street and put up barricades to widen the sidewalk and funnel pedestrians to marked crosswalks. Staff members patrol the route to encourage compliance.
"We want them to have fun, but we want them to be able to come back again," Studds said. "We like to think what we're doing is making a difference."
Levy said pedestrians need to slow down and think defensively.
"There's nothing so critically important on the other side of the highway that you have to put your safety and your family's well being at risk," he said. "All of our attractions have been here for many, many years. I assure everyone that those attractions will continue to be there. What's an extra five minutes?"
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