Too Deadly a Place to Drive
Pr. George's Leads in Fatalities, and Police Aim to Save Some Lives

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Twenty-one percent of the people who died on Maryland roadways last year were killed in Prince George's County -- more than anywhere else -- and law enforcement officials said they are teaming up to address traffic safety.

Statistics from the Maryland State Highway Administration show that of 589 traffic fatalities last year, 124 occurred on Prince George's roads.

The Prince George's number is nearly double that of Baltimore County, which was second on the list with 70 deaths. Montgomery County, at 52, Baltimore, at 49, and Anne Arundel County, at 48, rounded out the top five jurisdictions in traffic fatalities.

"Those figures are astounding, and I think we need to look and see what the common denominator is," said Prince George's Public Safety Director Vernon R. Herron. "One fatal crash is too many, but surely 124 is an unacceptable number."

State, county and municipal police officials in Prince George's have banded together to find out why the number is so high and to coordinate efforts to combat the problem, said Lt. Bonnie Morris, commander of the Maryland State Police Forestville barracks.

Morris said roads with multiple fatalities last year included Pennsylvania Avenue, Route 301 and Indian Head Highway, where eight people were fatally injured in February 2008 when a driver who was drag racing plowed into a crowd of people who had just watched another illegal street race.

Prince George's also has reported the highest number of pedestrian deaths in the state in recent years. On April 19, two pedestrians -- Richard Young II, 7, of Mitchellville and LaRenta Vondale McFarland, 19, of Cheverly -- were fatally injured when they were struck by a Jeep shortly after 9 p.m. as they crossed the eastbound lanes of Central Avenue, just east of Campus Way, in Upper Marlboro.

The pedestrians were pushing a shopping cart after leaving the Kettering Plaza shopping center, and the Jeep's driver, Umair Zaheer Akhtar, 19, of Upper Marlboro, told police he did not see them until it was too late. State police officials said last week that the investigation is expected to take two to three months as officers investigate the Jeep's speed, where it hit the pedestrians and other information to be determined through interviews and accident reconstruction.

Last year, 115 pedestrians died on Maryland roads. A breakdown of those numbers by county was not available. In 2007, of 111 pedestrians killed, 28 -- 25 percent -- were killed in Prince George's, compared with 17 each in Baltimore and Baltimore County, 15 in Montgomery and 8 in Anne Arundel.

In addition to the Indian Head Highway fatalities, last year's pedestrian deaths in Prince George's included:

-- Calvin Ford, 17, of Fort Washington, who was struck about 10:30 p.m. March 28 in the 15700 block of Livingston Road in Fort Washington, where he lived. Police are looking for the driver of a metallic gold or silver 1997-99 Cadillac DeVille with damage to the right front headlight assembly, who fled the scene.

-- Cpl. Richard Scott Findley, a 10-year veteran of the Prince George's Police Department, who was hit about 11:30 a.m. June 27 in the 14700 block of Laurel-Bowie Road in Laurel while working a case. Ronnie White, 19, was charged in Findley's death. White later died at the jail in a case that remains unsolved.

-- Alexander N. Grajales, 2, who was fatally struck Aug. 3 in the 7200 block of Baltimore Avenue in College Park. Police are looking for the driver of a black Ford F-150 pickup truck with a silver toolbox on the back that fled the scene.

"Over the last 10 years, Prince George's County has had the highest percentage of pedestrian deaths, with 23 percent," said highway administration spokesman David Buck. During the same time, Baltimore City had about 17 percent; Baltimore County, 15 percent; Montgomery, 13 percent; and Anne Arundel, 7 percent, he said.

Buck said he could not explain why Prince George's has logged so many traffic fatalities. Jurisdictions with more miles of roads and more drivers and pedestrians experience more crashes than smaller, more rural jurisdictions, he said.

Driver error is to blame for most crashes, he said. Among the factors he cited: impairment from exhaustion, alcohol or drugs; speeding; failure to use seat belts; and failure to abide by other safety laws. Alcohol was a factor in 188 of the 589 fatal crashes last year, and texting and cellphone use also contributed.

"Crashes are no accident," Buck said. "Statistics show that 93 percent of all crashes are attributed to driver error. . . . Only 7 percent are truly accidents, where little could have been done to prevent them."

Herron, a former state police administrator, said traffic fatalities pose just as significant a hazard to public safety as homicides, though they do not receive the same focus from law enforcement.

"A loss of a life is a loss, whether it is a homicide or a fatal crash," he said. "We should be just as concerned about fatal crashes as we are homicides."

Maryland reports about 100,000 crashes each year. Buck said state highway officials have worked to reduce traffic deaths by using federal funds to implement pedestrian and driver safety programs, such as Click It or Ticket, which is aimed at increasing seat belt use. State highway statistics show that of the 196 drivers killed in automobiles last year, 65, or one-third, wore no safety belts and drove cars not equipped with airbags, another feature credited with saving lives, authorities said.

Morris said the effort to cut down on traffic deaths will focus on increasing seat belt use, urging pedestrians to obey traffic laws and working to reduce motorcycle deaths, which have also increased.

County police initiated several programs last year geared at teaching pedestrians the importance of using crosswalks. Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said at the time that most of the county's pedestrian fatalities were caused by "pedestrian error."

"It is important to educate the public and make them aware of the dangers presented to prevent any further tragedies," he said.

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