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Maryland

Blood on The Highway: Ocean City Gets Fatal Pedestrian Accidents Down to Zero

Blair Rhodes owns Chauncey’s Surf Shop at 54th Street and Coastal Highway in Ocean City. There are bars to the left, right and behind him. So, he’s seen his share of close calls as people pour out of the bars and try to cross Coastal Highway’s eight lanes. "This is ground zero," Rhodes says. "So, I’m kind of seeing these men behaving badly."

Several years ago, a pedestrian was struck and killed trying to cross near Rhodes’s shop. Until a few years ago, pedestrian deaths were a regular summertime occurrence in Ocean City. But after two people died in 2012, the city, with help from the State Highway Administration, launched a multi-pronged attack.

Officials put in three pedestrian crossings, including one at 54th street. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill crosswalk. All traffic is stopped. There is a streetlight in the median. There are messages stenciled on the pavement nearby, directing you to the corner to cross.

The crosswalk itself has a brick-like pattern, so it stands out. Terry McGean, the city engineer, says it’s about guiding people. "Pathfinding, directing, doing whatever we can to get people to the safe place to cross the highway," McGean says.

Since 2012, the pedestrian death count in Ocean City has been zero. The rest of Maryland hasn’t done as well.

While fatal car crashes reached their lowest number since 1948 last year, more than 100 pedestrians died in 2014 when they were hit by cars. Pedestrian fatalities account for 20 percent of all traffic deaths in the state and officials are having a difficult time bringing those numbers down.

Lt. Scott Harner, the commander of the Ocean City Police Department’s traffic safety unit, says it’s "a very complex problem." But rather than letting yourself be overwhelmed, he says, "you just take on the problem piece by piece."

One piece is marketing. The messaging is everywhere in Ocean City, from drink coasters in bars, to banners flying behind airplanes, to tunes on the radio. The city also sends out teams who talk to pedestrians and guide them to corners. Police in plainclothes work in crosswalks, targeting drivers who aren’t yielding to pedestrians.

Mayor Rick Meehan says the program is working because it is a priority for the city. Officials meet monthly to plan how to keep fatal pedestrian accidents down.

"It’s not one time," Meehan says. "This is something you have to be vigilant with. Something you have to be consistent with. And something that you have to make sure, you know, you get everybody to buy into."

But will that approach work elsewhere? After all, Ocean City is a resort town with hundreds of thousands of people coming and going, but only in the summer. There are more than 800,000 people living in Baltimore County year round, not to mention commuters.

Baltimore County started its own pedestrian safety program 18 months ago with some of the same ideas as Ocean City’s.

"This is where we want to be regionally," says Jennifer Utz, Division Chief for the Baltimore County Fire Department. "We’re just a much larger entity and trying to figure out the best way to reach every type of population in every community is very difficult."

Every Saturday, the Baltimore County Fire department goes to places where people have been struck by cars, and tells pedestrians what happened there and why. You’ll also see them at festivals and fairs handing out information. And the numbers are heading in the right direction. In 2014 there were 21 fatal pedestrian accidents in Baltimore County. So far this year, there have been 15.

Ocean City’s Lt. Harner says fatal pedestrian accidents are among the worst, most gruesome calls for a police officer.

"The carnage from a fatal pedestrian collision is something that nobody should have to experience," Harner says. And he adds it’s a tragedy for all involved including the driver, even when not at fault.