Md. traffic fatalities surged in 2015; cheap gas, distracted driving blamed

WASHINGTON — The number of deadly traffic crashes jumped 17 percent in Maryland last year reversing a nearly decade-long downward, trend.

In 2015, 520 people died in vehicle and pedestrian crashes in the state, an increase over the 443 deaths reported in 2014  – the lowest number of traffic deaths reported since 2006, the state reported this week.

“We will do more to ensure this increase does not continue,” said Jim Ports, Deputy Secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

A close look at the numbers showed that 26 percent of the fatalities involved young drivers. Commercial vehicles were involved in 35 percent of the deadly crashes. Also, the number of deadly accidents involving bicycles doubled from 5 to 10.

The numbers were announced as traffic safety experts in the state gathered at the 2016 Strategic Highway Safety Plan Summit, where they are trying to come up with ideas to stop the upward trend.

“The only acceptable number of deaths on Maryland roads is zero,” Ports said.

Ports said cheaper gas played a role in the increase, with Marylanders traveling 58 billion miles on roads in the state.

To turn the numbers around, the state will continue to focus on enforcing the rules of the road and educating drivers about the dangers of drunken, aggressive and distracted driving.

Exact numbers were not available, but Ports said distracted driving is a big contributor to the number crashes on the state’s roads.

Deborah Hersman with the National Safety Council said talking on a cellphone increases a person’s chance of getting into a crash four fold.

Other contributors to the rising number of traffic fatalities include impaired driving, speeding, motorists not wearing a seat belt and distracted driving. Pedestrians not using crosswalks while crossing busy streets also contributed to the increase.

Traffic fatalities had been steadily dropping in Maryland since 2006 when 651 people were killed on the state’s roads.

But Maryland isn’t alone when it comes to the rising number of deaths. Traffic fatalities were up 8 percent nationwide, which Hersman said was the largest single-year increase in over 50 years.

In Virginia, 753 deaths were reported on the state’s roads in 2015, up 7 percent from 2014, the Virginia Department of Transportation said.

One step the state of Maryland is taking to make roads safer is to improve several highways that are hot spots for congestion and crashes. Among the improvement projects, $81 million will be spent to reconfigure the Maryland Route 175 and 295 interchange in Jessup.

As state and local leaders along with law enforcement continue taking an active role in trying to reduce the number of fatal crashes, all agree that keeping the roads safe ultimately falls on drivers.

“Stop driving distracted, stop driving impaired, stop driving aggressively, obey the speed limit and buckle your seat belt,” said Maryland State Police Superintendent Colonel William Pallozzi.

WTOP’s Jamie Forzato contributed to this report.

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