Blood On The Highway: Fatal Pedestrian Crashes Stay Stubbornly High in Maryland

Dec 8, 2015

The crosswalk at Eastern Ave and Rolling Mill Road that pedestrians tend to ignore.
Credit John Lee

Last year, Maryland recorded the lowest number of fatal car crashes since 1948. But the number of people struck and killed by cars is showing no such decline. 

Take, for example, the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Rolling Mill Road at Eastpoint Mall in Baltimore County. It won’t take long to see a pedestrian accident waiting to happen there.

"If we stand here long enough, we’ll see distracted drivers,” says Jennifer Utz, a Baltimore County Fire Department Division Chief. "We’ll see distracted pedestrians. We’ll see pedestrians walk across the street looking at their cellphones or texting or listening to iPods."

Nicholas Thomas, who catches the bus at that intersection, says he sees pedestrians dashing across Eastern Avenue in the middle of the block all the time.

"They’re not going to the crosswalk," Thomas says. "They stop right here and try to cross."

About 20 percent of the people killed in automobile accidents in Maryland are on foot. On average, that’s 105 people each year. In 2014, 21 pedestrians died in Baltimore County alone.

Elise Armacost, with the Baltimore County Police Department, says the pedestrians are to blame in most of those accidents. And they often happen in busy commercial corridors.

"Where you have multi lanes, a lot of traffic, and folks trying to get across those roads by walking through the middle of the traffic," she says.

But Steve Holt, with Citizens Planning and Housing Association, says it’s more complicated than that. Holt says there is a tendency to blame pedestrians when the real problem is roads that were not designed with people on foot in mind.

"Anytime where there is a long stretch of road and there’s no intersection, and there’s foot traffic and people are trying to get around, you’re always going to see pedestrian fatalities," he says.

Citizens Planning and Housing Association joined five other transit groups in November to send a letter to the state, asking that no new roads be built in Maryland until the ones we have are safe. Holt says there are traps, such as poorly designed sidewalks and roads that put pedestrians in danger.

"So, when we’re spending our transportation funding on projects that put more cars on the road, have them travel faster, make it harder for people to get across, we’re actually going the wrong direction on pedestrian safety," Holt says.

A spokesman for the State Highway Administration says it is committed to enhancing pedestrian safety. This includes adding and improving sidewalks and crosswalks. For instance, the state is spending more than $22 million this year on sidewalks alone. And state officials say it takes more than safety projects to reduce pedestrian fatalities.

Tom Gianni, who is in charge of the Maryland Transportation Department’s highway safety office, says it’s a vexing problem.

"Pedestrians don’t come with air bags," Gianni says. "And it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. If a vehicle hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian is going to get the worst of it."

Gianni says there are many factors as to why people are getting killed. Speed, alcohol and time of day come into play. This is the most dangerous time of year because it gets dark so early. He says everyone needs to be on their game. Pedestrians need to cross streets only at intersections. They need to wear bright clothes at night. As for drivers, they need to assume pedestrians can be anywhere, especially around bus stops.

Meanwhile, in Ocean City, no pedestrians have been killed in nearly four years. We’ll look at how the resort town improved pedestrian safety and whether that could be replicated elsewhere in the state in our next report.