Road fatalities way up in county this year

August 11, 1997


Staff Writer

It has been an especially deadly year on Washington County roads, and law enforcement officials say they don't know why traffic accidents are claiming so many lives.

Nineteen traffic deaths were reported in Washington County through June - the most recent period for which statistics were available. That's one traffic death more than the 18 fatalities recorded in the county in all of last year, according to Maryland State Police data.

There have been several deaths since June, including a Sunday night accident on U.S. 40 west of Hagerstown in which two motorcyclists died.


The worst year for traffic fatalities in the county was 1987, when 27 people died as a result of traffic accidents, according to the State Highway Administration.

This year's death rate is "certainly not something we are proud of, but to explain it, we are at wit's end," said Lt. Bruce Tanner of the Hagerstown barracks of the Maryland State Police.

Washington County's 19 traffic deaths and the 16 traffic fatalities in neighboring Frederick County made up the bulk of the 57 deaths reported in the Tri-State area halfway through the year. If that pace continues, it would surpass last year's Tri-State area total of 97 deaths.

Some areas saw a decline in traffic deaths during the first half of the year. Morgan County, W.Va., for instance, had no fatal accidents through June, according to West Virginia State Police records. Berkeley County, W.Va., where last year 21 traffic deaths were logged, reported three fatalities through the first six months of this year.

"These things are unpredictable. They come sporadically," said Sgt. Jim Humphrey of the Martinsburg barracks of the West Virginia State Police.

Humphrey said his agency responds to about the same number of accidents - more than 100 a month - so a drop in fatalities is not linked to safer driving or other factors.

"It's not because of any enhanced law enforcement or anything of that nature," he said.

Cpl. William Baker of the McConnellsburg, Pa., barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police, agreed. Even though there were as many fatalities in Fulton County during the first half of this year as in all of 1997, there is nothing that indicates that people are driving more recklessly.

"That's just fate," Baker said.

In Washington County, the broad category of driver error has been listed as a cause in 18 of the 19 fatalities, while speed was listed eight times and alcohol was cited as a cause twice, according to records.

It is impossible to link one specific offense to the deaths, Tanner said.

"We wish we did know the reason why, because if we did, we could address it," Tanner said.

He offered as a typical example an accident that occurred early this month when a driver lost control of his car on Interstate 70 west of Hagerstown. The car hit an embankment and overturned several times, police said. Both the driver and passenger, who were thrown from the car, later died from injuries sustained in the crash.

"We're seeing a lot of that," Tanner said.

Tanner said that getting to the root of the problem would be easier if the crashes were taking place in a specific geographic area. In that case, police could point to, perhaps, a bad intersection, as the reason for so many highway deaths. But a map at the Hagerstown barracks shows the fatal crashes were spread throughout the county.

"If you look at (the map), it looks like someone hit it with a shotgun," Tanner said.

Washington County Sheriff Charles F. Mades said he believes a Maryland law that takes effect on Oct. 1 will save lives by allowing police to ticket motorists who are not wearing seat belts, even if no other traffic offenses have been committed.

Currently, police officers in Maryland can cite someone for failure to wear a seat belt only when they've stopped a driver for a "primary offense," such as speeding or making an illegal lane change.

Seat belts would have lessened the severity of injury in 11 of the county's traffic fatalities this year, police records show.

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