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Road fatalities in Panhandle sparking debate

January 29, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

Thirty-seven people were killed in car accidents in the Eastern Panhandle in 2003, sparking debate over whether the area is experiencing an inordinately high rate of fatal crashes.

In Berkeley County last year, 20 people died in car accidents. Fifteen people died in accidents in Jefferson County and two died in Morgan County, said 1st Sgt. Deke Walker of the West Virginia State Police, based in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Walker said the numbers reflect about the average number of car fatalities in a year.

In 2002, 24 people died in car accidents in Berkeley County, 10 people died in Jefferson County and three died in Morgan County, Walker said.

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The number of fatal car accidents does not appear to be high for the local area, Walker said.

"Of course, we would love for those numbers to go down and stay consistently down," Walker said.

A state highways safety official takes a different view of fatal accidents in the area, especially in Berkeley County.

To analyze Berkeley County's fatality rate, Gary Winter compared the county to one of comparable size: Monongalia County.

The population in Monongalia County, the home of Morgantown, W.Va., and West Virginia University, is about 81,000. The population in Berkeley County is about 75,000, said Winter, coordinator of alcohol programs for the Governor's Highway Safety Program.

Even though Monongalia County's population is greater than Berkeley County's, Monongalia County had 11 car fatalities in 2002 while Berkeley County had 24, Winter said.

"I think Berkeley County is running a little high," Winter said.

Winter said one factor he thinks may be contributing to a higher number of fatal crashes in Berkeley County is congestion.

Winter said he has visited the area and noticed the crowded conditions on local roads.

"The population is growing so fast it's outgrowing the infrastructure," Winter said.

A random check of fatalities in past years in Berkeley County shows lower numbers.

In 1994, seven people died in Berkeley County accidents, 14 people died in Jefferson County and four people died in Morgan County, according to state police statistics. In 1985, 14 people died in Berkeley County, 10 died in Jefferson County and five died in Morgan County, according to the statistics.

Winter said he also is concerned about the number of drunken driving crashes in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

In 2002, Berkeley County was ranked the third worst county in the state for economic losses associated with drunken driving crashes and Jefferson County was ranked sixth worst.

In 2002, there were 201 drunken driving accidents in Berkeley County and 90 in Jefferson County, Winter said.

The economic losses caused by the drunken driving accidents reflect such things as loss of income, cost of medical care and property damage, Winter said.

Winter said he did not have any statistics for 2003.

Winter said possible causes for the high number of drunken driving accidents in Berkeley and Jefferson counties could be the large population and the fact both counties border other states. That can affect the drunken driving rate due to people driving in and out of the areas to take advantage of different closing times in bars, Winter said.

Efforts have been under way to improve roads in the Eastern Panhandle, including the much-anticipated widening of W.Va. 9 from two to four lanes. The project will cost about $210 million and is expected to be completed in 2006.

Twelve people died on the section of W.Va. 9 between Martinsburg and Charles Town between Sept. 1, 2000, and Nov. 4 of last year, according to state Division of Highways statistics.

Panhandle counties aren't alone in the Tri-State region when it comes to rural roads and high numbers of vehicle crashes.

In Maryland, it was reported last month that rural counties accounted for 24 percent of the state population but 36 percent of the fatal crashes over the better part of a decade. Experts blamed the anomaly largely on the design of country roads.

According to an analysis by Capital News Service of traffic accidents in 2002, Washington County had the highest number of fatal accidents in Western Maryland that year.

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