An article Sept. 2 gave an incorrect figure for the record number of cars crossing the Bay Bridge. The 24-hour record for Bay Bridge traffic heading in both directions was 72,307 vehicles, set on Aug. 3.
Ten-year-old Michael Perlman of Potomac started off to the beach in June with his 12-year-old sister and two friends from the neighborhood. The neighbors' mother, Arlene Blum, 37, was at the wheel, and she headed across the Bay Bridge and south on Rte. 50. Then she headed east toward the ocean on Rte. 404.
West of Denton, for reasons nobody can determine, the car drifted across the center line and was struck head-on by a tractor-trailer. Perlman and Blum were killed.
The day was clear and the road was straight. Maryland state police officers wrote "fail to keep right of center" as the primary cause and "negligent driving" as a secondary cause, but they admitted it explained nothing. Drunkenness they could understand, or speeding, or mechanical failure, but it was none of those things.
There were no traffic fatalities on Rte. 404 last year, and none the year before. Since the end of April, there have been eight, and a highway once seen as safe is now viewed as a killer.
Rte. 404 is the worst of the routes to the beach, but it is not the only one that's dangerous. Traffic crossing the Bay Bridge fans out through Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot counties, heading for the Delaware beaches and Ocean City, Md. Last year nine traffic deaths were recorded in those three counties. So far this year, there have been 40 deaths, mostly on highways such as Rte. 404 and Rte. 50.
"We're obviously overwrought," said Sgt. Dallas Pope, who works in the state police barracks here. "We're running a terrible tally, ahead of last year."
The Eastern Shore fatalities have contributed to a significant increase in traffic deaths statewide this year. Last year at this time, 417 persons had died in traffic accidents; the number so far this year is 482. Virginia and the District report a slight decrease in fatalities for the same period. [State police yesterday reported four fatalities in Maryland and six in Virginia so far this Labor Day weekend.]
This year's fatal accidents on Rte. 404 started when a Lincoln convertible ran head-on into a Toyota near Denton on April 28; two persons died. Then Blum and Perlman were killed, and then, last month, three Baltimore women and a truck driver died in a fiery head-on crash. Two weeks ago, a head-on collision on Rte. 404 killed an Anne Arundel County man, bringing the total to eight dead.
The state police here, who patrol the three counties, cannot figure out what has gone wrong. Few of the victims were in cars that were speeding. Relatively few of the drivers were drinking. Few of the accidents -- and none of the ones on Rte. 404 -- happened at night. Mechanics dissected the vehicles involved and found mechanical faults in only one. Reconstruction experts used computers to examine the crashes but found no pattern.
Marvin Perlman, Michael's father, also was surprised to learn of the danger of Eastern Shore roadways. "I never gave it any thought; it never occurred to me," he said. "I have been to the beach. I think I have gone that way. And I don't recall heavy traffic."
The 40 fatalities in the three counties occurred as a result of 34 separate accidents. Alcohol was involved in six of these, police said, and speeding in two. Only one was attributed by state police to the driver falling asleep. But for the most part it was unexplained "driver error" that caused the crashes -- which, police noted, is an unsatisfactory explanation.
"The whole thing is really sort of shocking to us," Pope said. "We're running so far ahead of last year, other years, in particular on Rte. 404. It's sort of difficult to grasp the answer to that."
No matter what the specific cause of each accident, increasingly heavy beach traffic is surely an important factor, according to Lt. Robert Graham, who supervises state police in the three counties. "It's more tiresome and stressful to drive to the beach and back," he said.
Indeed, summer traffic across the Eastern Shore is steadily increasing. Maryland Toll Facility Police officials estimate that summer traffic over the Bay Bridge is between 8 and 10 percent higher than last year. On Aug. 3, 372,307 cars crossed the bridge, beating by precisely 1,000 the record of 371,307 set in one day last year. The 3,468 cars that crossed the bridge in one hour on Aug. 10 also set a record.
These cars, pumped onto the Eastern Shore, inevitably lead to more accidents, according to state police. An estimated 40 percent of the cars crossing the Bay Bridge, or as many as about 1,400 cars an hour on Aug. 10, end up on the two lanes of Rte. 404 as they shoot through the soy, corn and poultry farms of Caroline County.
But Rte. 404 has a maximum traffic capacity of well under 1,200 cars per hour, according to state highway engineer Robert Kiel. "In wintertime, the roads handle it fine," he said. "But even on weekdays in the summer, it's heavy." Some congestion probably will be relieved when a bypass around Denton, currently under construction, is completed. But Rte. 404 might get more traffic from Rte. 50, where the lengthy project of widening the Choptank River bridge is expected to disrupt traffic.
Traffic is ever increasing. Once paved with oyster shells, Rte. 404 now is one lane in each direction, 12 feet wide. It is about the only route to take to get to the Delaware beaches, and it was, according to Caroline County historians, the route chosen by the drivers of the first two motor cars to come to the county, in the summer of 1900. They were on their way to Rehoboth.
"It seems the problem has gotten greater this year," said Brian Ebling, director of civil defense in Caroline County. "I guess nobody has the real solution. Public awareness would be a good start, and a safety seat belt law wouldn't hurt." Meanwhile, local residents are doing a lot of talking about the dangers of Rte. 404, he said, and they have been staying close to home on weekends.
"The traffic keeps getting heavier and heavier," said Wayne Fretterd, who lives in Denton and runs the town's ambulance squad. "And it's going to go on until the ocean dries up. The people just go crazy. I guess it's just a relief. You're just afraid to go out on the highway. And most of the time, you don't go out."
He complains that beachgoers are "making a mess of the roads. It seems like the closer to the beaches they get, the worse they drive . . . . It seems that the ones getting killed are not local people. Most of them have been from across the bridge. Most of it is the city people."