Tri-State traffic fatalies on rise

February 19, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Motorist deaths in the Tri-State area rose for the third straight year, and law enforcement officials blame the increase on such things as more vehicles on the roads, aggressive driving and driver inattentiveness.

There was a substantial drop in the number of Tri-State area traffic fatalities from 1994 to 1995, with the number of deaths sliding from 120 to 96.

But the number of deaths in the region has risen steadily since 1995. There were 97 traffic fatalities in 1996, 110 in 1997 and 113 in 1998.

West Virginia roads witnessed the biggest jump in traffic fatalities in 1998, with eight more deaths recorded that year than in 1997, according to the West Virginia State Police.


Though the number of people killed in traffic accidents in the West Virginia counties of Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan dropped from 33 in 1996 to 19 in 1997, the number shot back up to 27 in 1998.

Of those 27, 16 were in Berkeley County, according to police.

Sgt. Jim Humphrey, of the Martinsburg barracks of the West Virginia State Police, attributed the increased number of traffic fatalities in Berkeley County to the rise in traffic levels on both primary and secondary roads not equipped to handle the volume.

Humphrey said truck traffic on Interstate 81 was a major concern, and W.Va. 9 is "one of our biggest problems."

Lt. Bruce Smith, of the Hagerstown barracks of the Maryland State Police, said almost 50 percent of the Washington County fatalities could have been prevented if drivers had been wearing seat belts.

Smith said that many fatal accidents took place on Interstates 81 and 70, and that the volume of traffic, not speed, was the main culprit.

"Congestion's a major contributing cause to accidents on heavily congested Interstates," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It's not just an inconvenience, but a real threat to safety."

Lt. Thomas Barkdoll, of the Chambersburg barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police, also said increased traffic levels might be one of many variables prompting the rise in fatal accidents.

The number of traffic fatalities in the Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania has increased each year since 1996, according to statistics from the state Department of Transportation.

The majority of these traffic fatalities were in Franklin County.

"There's a lot of variables you have to look at," Barkdoll said.

Franklin County's population is growing three times as fast as the rest of the Commonwealth, according to statistics Barkdoll said he's seen from Penn State University.

In some recent cases, heart attacks and other medical problems have caused death prior to accidents, Barkdoll said.

And Franklin County is not immune to the nationwide reckless driving epidemic, he said.

Smith said drivers in too much of a hurry and those not paying enough attention to the road were other major factors in fatal traffic accidents.

"It's a busy world we live in. It's kind of hard to have divided attention and be focused on driving at the same time," Barkdoll said.

Though Anderson said cars and roads are being designed better, driver behavior is deteriorating.

"Drivers' rude and aggressive behavior is linked to a general loss of civility in society that's spilling onto the roadways," Anderson said.

Another factor contributing to the increased number of traffic fatalities on West Virginia roads might be the Interstate speed limit increase that took effect in August 1997, said Sgt. Rick Robinson, media spokesman for the West Virginia State Police.

He said the consequences of increasing the speed limit on Interstate 81 from 65 to 70 mph have been debated, and the effect "depends on which report you read."

Few people would argue, though, that more drivers and greater speeds mean more accidents, Robinson said.

For Washington and Frederick counties, 1997 was an exceptionally deadly year on roads.

Washington County's 28 traffic deaths and the 31 traffic fatalities in neighboring Frederick County made up the bulk of the 110 deaths reported in the Tri-State area in 1997, according to the Maryland State Police.

An ominous Washington County record was surpassed that year.

The worst year previously for traffic fatalities in Washington County was a decade earlier, when 27 people died in traffic accidents, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.

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