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The Science of the City: The fast and the dangerous

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Posted on: August 10, 2023

By Paul Ruffins

This is the third article in my series examining the high rate of traffic fatalities in Prince George’s County. You can read the first two parts of the series here and here.

Correction: May’s column incorrectly stated that the 2022 rate of pedestrian fatalities in Prince George’s County was approximately 12 per 100,000 residents. That rate was for total traffic fatalities. Based on data from the Maryland Department of Transportation, Prince George’s County had a pedestrian fatality rate of 3.8 per 100,000 residents in 2022.

Between 2018 and 2022, pedestrians in Prince George’s County were more than twice as likely to die in traffic accidents compared to pedestrians in Montgomery County. This high number of casualties results from a complex interplay between the county’s demographics, road characteristics, and the national trend of people speeding and driving trucks and SUVs.

Credit: Paul Ruffins

Prince George’s and Montgomery counties cover close to the same geographic area, and each averages two vehicles per household. They also share several major roads — the Beltway, East-West Highway and University Boulevard — and both are governed by the same Maryland traffic laws. 

According to the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Zero Deaths Maryland Crash Data Dashboard, however, in 2022 Prince George’s County had 122 traffic fatalities, while Montgomery County, which has approximately 105,000 more residents, had 48. There is a similar difference between the counties when it comes to pedestrian deaths. In 2022, Prince George’s County tallied 36 pedestrian fatalities, while Montgomery County had 14.

One reason for the differences may stem from the fact that Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have notably different demographics. According to the 2020 census, residents of Prince George’s County were 59% Black, 21% Hispanic or Latino, 11% white and 4% Asian. In that same census, Montgomery County’s population was 40% white, 20% Hispanic or Latino, 18% Black and 15% Asian. 

A 2022 national study conducted by Harvard and Boston University (BU) found significant differences in rates of traffic fatalities that were drawn along racial lines. It reported that Black Americans died at more than four times the rate per mile when they were cycling than white Americans. Per mile traveled, Black pedestrians and drivers were about twice as likely to die in traffic related accidents than white people. The fatality rates for Hispanic Americans were slightly lower than for Black Americans, but still much higher than the rates for white or Asian Americans. Data in the study was not broken down on a state or local level. 

Authors of the Harvard/BU study noted that structural racism in the country has historically led to minority communities having fewer sidewalks, less public transportation and more liquor stores. Other studies have found that Black and Hispanic people are less likely to wear helmets while bicycling or buckle their seat belts while driving than white or Asian people.

Prince George’s County also has substantially more traffic than Montgomery County does. The Maryland Department of Transportation tallies vehicular miles of travel (VMTs) to quantify and understand road use patterns throughout the state. 

In 2021, drivers logged 25% more VMTs on roads in Prince George’s County than they did in Montgomery County. More significantly, Prince George’s County also tops Montgomery County with 316% more VMTs on major urban arteries, which are inherently more dangerous than limited access highways like the Beltway or I-270. Drivers on Route 310 or Martin Luther King Highway often reach highway speeds, even as these roads have stop-light controlled intersections and pedestrians frequently walking on the shoulder. 

The most notorious of these arteries is Indian Head Highway (Route 210). At 23 miles long, it represents only about 1% of the county’s approximately 2,000 miles of state-maintained roads. According to the Route 210 Traffic Safety Committee, 13% (5 out of 36) of the county’s pedestrian fatalities and about 8% (10 out of 122) of the total traffic deaths occurred on this road in 2022.

National Safety Council data show that injuries and deaths related to speeding have been increasing nationwide since 2019. One theory regarding this suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic cut commutes for many, resulting in fewer drivers on the roads, and those who were still driving did so at higher speeds. 

Regardless of the pandemic’s impact, certain roads in Prince George’s County are notorious for speeding and street racing. In 2008, eight pedestrians were killed while they were watching an illegal race on Route 210. In recent years, residents along St. Barnabas and Ritchie Marlboro roads have also reported an uptick in speeding vehicles. 

 As part of its participation in the Zero Deaths Maryland traffic safety program, the county reported that driver and passenger fatalities related to speeding doubled from 10 in 2019, to 20 in 2021. Because of improvements in seat belts and airbags, accidents at moderate speeds, 35 mph for instance, may leave drivers and passengers unharmed, but the risk goes up significantly in high-speed accidents. For pedestrians, being hit by cars moving at even modestly higher speeds can mean serious injury or death.

 For almost a decade, sales of SUVs and pickup trucks have outnumbered car sales across the country. In 2020, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported that SUVs and pickup trucks are about three times more likely to injure or kill a pedestrian than a sedan traveling at the same speed. In 2023, IIHS reported that SUVs and pickups moving at any speed posed twice the risk of death for cyclists and caused 60% more serious head injuries than an accident involving a smaller vehicle. 

“SUVs tend to knock riders down, where they can also be run over, rather than vaulting them onto the hood of the vehicle,” said IIHS statistician Sam Monfort. “That’s probably because the higher front end of an SUV strikes the cyclist above their center of gravity.”

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