By Alexander Tuerk
SEABROOK – Prince George’s County officials launched a plan to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2040, gathering at an event in the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center on July 25.
Vision Zero is an international project where communities adopt a set of policies that take “a proactive, preventative approach that prioritizes traffic safety as a public health issue,” according to their website.
The strategy began in Sweden and has been applied as close as Montgomery County and Washington D.C. Montgomery County adopted Vision Zero in 2017; the District in 2015.
Officials present included County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) Chief of Police Hank P. Stawinski and Terry Bellamy, director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation.
At the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard, the sounds of traffic often drowned out the speakers, as bus passengers began to trickle in to watch the event.
In front of the podium where the officials spoke were pairs of shoes to represent those who had been killed by traffic accidents in the county.
“If you listen carefully (to) the language around this issue,” Stawinski said, “we are no longer talking about accidents. You hear us speak of collisions, crashes.”
“That’s deliberate because crashes and collisions are preventable,” he said. The county sees, on average, 42 crashes per day, and more than 15,000 per year, according to data from the Maryland Highway Safety Office and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2018, there were 99 traffic fatalities in the county, including a crash that killed three children the day before New Year’s Eve.
On Dec. 30 of last year, a drunk driver struck the Mejias, a Virginia family, in Oxon Hill, killing the two five-year-old twins and the one-year-old in the backseat and critically injuring the parents in front. Thomas Hawk was arrested, with his sentencing hearing on Aug. 29 for the 21 charges against him. The charges include manslaughter by auto and homicide while impaired by alcohol.
Alsobrooks said that their deaths spurred on the adoption of Vision Zero. On Feb. 2, just over a month after the Dec. 30 crash, five more children were killed in a crash in Bowie. Alsobrooks said she personally attended their funerals..
“I walked by each of those five caskets. I have never seen anything like that in my life, and hope never to see it again,” she said.
The topic was also personal for Stawinski. He said that he regrets not having met his uncle, who was killed in a car crash in the 1950s along with his wife and newborn daughter.
“It really puts it into perspective for me, because we have so many people, like my mom and myself, who don’t have a loved one any longer,” he said.
Officials said that Vision Zero would be implemented through a mix of public education, infrastructure changes and tighter enforcement. Alsobrooks said the county’s goal for the year is to reduce traffic deaths by 10%, or nine deaths compared to the 99 in 2018. Part of that goal is Stawinski’s Operation Shortstop – starting next week, police will be conducting “concerted enforcement of the speed laws” around schools in the county to prevent student-related traffic deaths.
When asked about cost, County Council Chair Todd Turner said that the county council and the county executive have increased funding for the Department of Public Works and Transportation in their fiscal year budgets for the past several years. Turner said additional resources are provided through collaboration with state highway police that patrol state roads like Pennsylvania Avenue and Route One.
Bellamy acknowledged that the county’s position between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore makes it difficult to ensure everyone on the road is educated, with many just commuting through the county and therefore cannot be reached by local initiatives.
On July 7, a crash on the Capital Beltway killed a 22-year-old woman and shut down all four lanes of the county’s major thoroughfare for hours. Ronet Aching was struck in the southbound lane by a truck going northbound, and multiple outlets reporting that PGPD officials are considering alcohol as a factor.
In his speech, Stawinski referenced the death of Davon McKenzie, an off-duty county police officer who was struck and killed on his motorcycle by another vehicle on May 29. Stawinski said that he had spoken to the officer’s mother last week and that she was “strong but grieving.”
“Well done is always better than well said,” Stawinski said.
For now, the county executive said she wants to focus on the initiatives that follow adopting Vision Zero.
“We had 99 deaths last year, it would be our goal to have at least nine fewer deaths this year, until we get to zero,” she said.