Maryland roadways grew more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists in 2023, threatening to undo the state’s progress before the pandemic.
Car crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists rose 9% in Maryland last year, the largest year-over-year increase post-pandemic, according to a Banner analysis of preliminary Maryland State Police crash data. By the end of 2023, there were just over 3,600 of these crashes, resulting in 152 deaths and over 3,000 injuries. State police say the data set is subject to change as crash reports are updated.
Reasons for the spike are complex, but one of the most common causes for fatalities is speed, which can be incredibly dangerous to pedestrians and bicyclists, said Motor Vehicle Administration chief Christine Nizer. The MVA last year began publishing the state’s fatal crash numbers on a monthly basis.
Since a dramatic drop, driven in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists have steadily risen back to near pre-pandemic levels. Though the 3,605 of these crashes in 2023 still fall short of the 3,976 that occurred in 2019, the pace of increase raises a worrying prospect that 2024 could represent the year in which all the state’s post-pandemic progress is undone. After a decline in these crashes every year from 2018 to 2020, they have risen in each year since.
During the lockdowns, Maryland roadways emptied as businesses and schools closed and people stayed home to avoid getting sick. With more space on the road, motorists began driving faster. Impaired drivers were behind the wheel earlier in the day, Nizer said. Cellphones and other distractions contributed to crashes.
“Behaviors are not going back to where they were before [the pandemic],” she said. “The numbers are really going in the wrong direction for all crashes.”
While the number of overall crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists is still below pre-pandemic levels, the years during and after the pandemic have been slightly deadlier on average for pedestrians and cyclists. Last year, crashes involving cyclists or pedestrians killed at least one person about 4% of the time, compared to around 3% in 2019. The fatality rate in these crashes has remained elevated, even despite lower crash totals.
As other counties have struggled with maintaining post-pandemic progress, Baltimore City, Maryland’s most densely populated locality, has exhibited some signs of success. While the rate of pedestrian or bicyclist crashes rose considerably in most of Maryland’s large counties from 2022 to 2023, it dropped in Baltimore City.
While the decline was slight, from 150.62 per 100,000 residents to 150.28, the city’s rate remains well below pre-pandemic levels, something that many other counties cannot say. Likewise, Baltimore City has made progress in combating fatal crashes involving pedestrians and bikes, where the rate per 100,000 residents dropped from 3.55 in 2022 to 2.53 in 2023.
In a statement, city officials attributed those figures to work completed by the Department of Transportation since launching in 2021 its Complete Streets plan, which aims to prioritize pedestrian and bicyclist safety in street design. The city is leaning into designs that shorten crosswalks, slow vehicles down and reduce cut-through turns at intersections.
The U.S. Department of Transportation recently granted Baltimore City $11 million toward eliminating roadway deaths as part of the federal Safe Streets for All program.
Meanwhile, Prince George’s County was the deadliest for pedestrians. Despite a per-capita rate of crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians that is quite close to similarly sized counties like Montgomery and Baltimore County, crashes in Prince George’s County were far more likely to be deadly.
In 2023, there were more than twice as many fatal crashes in Prince George’s County than anywhere else in the state. The county’s rate of deaths per 100,000 residents in these crashes was likewise about double that of the next closest county.
Prince George’s County transportation and law enforcement officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Counties maintain a strategic highway safety plan with a goal of reducing the number of serious injuries and fatalities on the road down to zero. Prince George’s County’s plan acknowledged that the jurisdiction has historically experienced the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the state and pointed to speed as a factor.
Research shows that pedestrians struck by a car traveling 40 mph are killed nearly 85% of the time. By comparison, those struck by a car traveling 20 mph die only 5% of the time.
“This is a problem we can solve,” Nizer said. “We can drive these numbers the opposite way, but we all have to think about it more consciously.”
In the meantime, the MVA is doubling down on education and has launched its first campaign to encourage drivers to remain in a malfunctioning or disabled vehicle instead of standing on the roadway. Campaigns will look different for dense urban centers like Baltimore to encourage use of crosswalks, increased visibility and driver awareness.
Since 2009, the United States has seen a rise in pedestrian deaths, particularly at night, according to an analysis from the New York Times. Crashes in Maryland involving pedestrians and cyclists are deadlier at night.
Nizer believes Maryland needs a culture change around the responsibility of being behind the wheel. She thinks of the families of crash victims every time she spots dangerous behavior on the road.
“Can we control all circumstances? Of course not,” she said. “But each and every one of us does have the ability to help make a difference.”