‘There’s not a mystery about what needs to be done’: Local transit officials on increase of fatal pedestrian crashes in Md.

After a big surge in fatal crashes that claimed the lives of pedestrians in recent years, a new report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association showed nationwide there was a more than 5% decline in such crashes in 2023 compared to 2022.

But as encouraging as that sounds, the numbers are still much higher than those recorded nationwide before the pandemic, and still over 77% higher compared to 2010.

While the nationwide numbers are lower, both Maryland and D.C. saw increases from 2022. The increase in the District was small — 20 fatal pedestrian crashes last year compared to 19 in 2022.

But in Maryland, the increase was much higher. Statewide, there were 161 crashes that left a pedestrian dead last year — 24 more than the year before. That tied for the second largest increase in the country, behind only Colorado, which saw 29 more fatal crashes involving pedestrians last year than in 2022.

California, Arizona, New York and Virginia saw the most significant declines in such crashes, with 38 fewer pedestrians dying on Virginia roads last year. Even though Maryland is a much smaller state, 28 more pedestrians died on its roads last year compared to Virginia.

“Generally speaking, we are seeing a lot of pedestrian deaths still in suburban areas,” said Jonathan Adkins, CEO of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. “Certainly, Maryland has a lot of suburban areas — thinking about suburban D.C., thinking about suburban Baltimore — sometimes the infrastructure isn’t as forgiving or as allowing of pedestrians to be walking in those areas. So there’s probably not just one factor, there’s probably a few different things going on here.”

Chrissy Nizer, the head of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration and the state’s highway safety rep, acknowledged the sharp increase to levels not seen since 2007. She reiterated the importance of slowing down, especially when driving through work zones or near crosswalks.

“We all have to look out for each other — that’s both drivers and pedestrians following the rules of the road,” Nizer said. “Pedestrians and other vulnerable roadway users, like bicyclists, they don’t have the protection that we do in vehicles.”

While the numbers cover all parts of Maryland, Prince George’s County Councilwoman Wanika Fisher said the increase is also an indication of the growing urbanization of this region.

Fisher, who during her time on the council has pressed for more pedestrian protections in her district, which includes Hyattsville and Langley Park, said roads built by the state decades ago haven’t kept up with the increasing housing density in those areas.

“Our economic thoroughfares are all on state highway roads,” Fisher said. “And the standards that we’re using on walkability, like whether you can have a sidewalk, a guarded rail, the different lighting, the flashing lights on crossing and all of those things, we’re using standards that haven’t been updated.”

And she suggested some of the studies conducted also happen at times when roads aren’t in their heaviest use by both vehicles and pedestrians.

“Riggs Road is used so much … it’s crazy,” Fisher said. “I know it’s millions of dollars to put sidewalks on the entire Riggs Road, but at least have a priority area because people are walking in that community all the time and it’s really, really difficult to walk that road.”

There were at least three fatal pedestrian crashes on or at intersections crossing Riggs Road last year, including two in one week.

“What kills pedestrians? It’s drivers speeding too fast,” Adkins said. “And one of the most immediate ways to address that is to have law enforcement out. You don’t even have to write a ticket, but just to have law enforcement out being visible.”

Adkins also echoed the need for road improvements.

“There’s not a mystery about what needs to be done. We need to have better infrastructure, better enforcement of traffic laws, and we also need to use automated enforcement,” he added. “Use a speed camera out there to slow drivers down; that will make everybody safe. You’ve got to do it fairly and equitably. But it works.”

Going forward, Nizer said, reserving funding for safety needs on all roads, not just major interstates and highways, will be taken into consideration when projects are considered.

It’s called the “Complete Street Policy,” which is about “making sure that we’re designing our roadways considering all roadway users, not just the cars that need to get back and forth.”

But more immediately, Fisher and Nizer were both in agreement that drivers need to be more careful, and pedestrians need to also do their part and pay attention to their surroundings.

“It all starts with each and every one of us,” Nizer said.

For drivers, she said it’s about buckling up, putting the phone down and making sure nobody is impaired behind the wheel.

“A high rate of speed leads to worse injuries,” she added.

Adkins also praised some of the steps being taken in Virginia, but he still cautioned against reading too much into the numbers so far.

While the overall news was on the positive side, one year doesn’t make a trend. And the reality is pedestrian fatalities are up sharply. All other combined traffic fatalities are also up noticeably, too.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Adkins said.

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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