Less than a half-hour remained in 2012 when the teenager brought his car around a curve of Bush Chapel Road in Aberdeen.
According to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, 17-year-old Austin Remines was on the yellow center line a moment later when he swerved back into his own lane, lost control of his vehicle, and collided with another car.
Remines passed away in the early morning hours of the first day of the new year, but the crash that claimed his life was counted by authorities as occurring in 2012, bringing a bloody year on Harford County roads to a close with one last loss.
According to information compiled by The Dagger from the Sheriff’s Office, the Bel Air and JFK Highway barracks of the Maryland State Police, and other sources, a total of 30 people died on Harford County roads last year. That total does not include accidents linked to medical issues, nor an incident which occurred on I-95 and was later ruled a suicide. Also, Maryland State Police statistics do not count deaths which occur more than 30 days after an accident as a traffic fatality.
A complete table of all fatal crashes is presented below.
The number represents a 25 percent jump in fatal crashes from the year before, when 24 people were killed, according to statistics compiled by the state of Maryland. Though it did not match highs from the previous 10 years, the 2012 toll includes two separate high-profile, extremely severe accidents which each killed three people.
“Last year was a bad year, [but] I think any year that you have a death is a bad year,” Bane said in a Jan. 11 interview. “If we’d had one, it would have been a bad year.”
Task Force on the Road
The high number of fatal crashes early in the year, including one which killed three siblings in February, led to the formation by the County Council of an interagency, county-wide traffic safety task force. The task force, chaired by Bane, is charged with reviewing crash statistics and road information and making recommendations to improve traffic safety in Harford County.
At the council’s meeting Tuesday night, Bane offered the task force’s interim report, presenting data and a few observations on recent crash statistics. His presentation slides to council members are included below.
Despite the increase in fatal accidents, overall crashes and accidents resulting in injuries are down from highs in the early and middle years of the last decade, Bane said.
According to state statistics, 30 people were killed on Harford County roads in 2007, 35 in 2003, and 34 in 2002. But the overall number of crashes has fallen in each of the last six years, from a high of 3,444 in 2005 to 2,970 in 2011. The number of people injured has also fallen in that timeframe, from a 10-year high of 2,340 in 2004 to 1,795 in 2011. State numbers for 2012 are not yet available, Bane said.
Bane pointed to two initiatives which have informed the task force’s work. The first was the Maryland Strategic Highway Safety Plan, generated by the State Highway Administration, which aims to reduce traffic deaths statewide from 592 in 2008 to fewer than 475 by Dec. 31, 2015.
That goal is in turn part of the second, nationwide initiative, “Toward Zero Deaths,” which looks to cut traffic fatalities in half by 2030.
Bane also urged the public to participate in the task force’s process by completing a series of nine surveys on local traffic issues. The surveys are available on a number of local government websites, including the Sheriff’s Office site.
Those surveys may help to fix a gap Bane said he sees in the public’s awareness of fatal accidents.
“There seems to be some type of a disconnect with the public when we talk about [auto] fatalities versus homicides,” Bane said. “You can have a homicide and it’s front page and it’s all anyone ever talks about, and we put a lot of resources into it, and rightly so. But you can have a traffic crash, a fatality, and it’s talked about today, and then it disappears from everybody’s radar.”
The task force’s law enforcement arm includes members of the Sheriff’s Office, both State Police barracks, and the three town police departments. Of those agencies, Bane said the Sheriff’s Office has had to play “catch-up” in the last few decades to become an agency that deals not just with crime, but with traffic.
“When I came here [the Sheriff’s Office] in 1972, we were not a traffic-oriented agency, that was the responsibility of the state police,” Bane recalled. “Sheriff Kunkel would not even issue us citation books. We went out on the road without traffic citations. We did not investigate accidents until the mid to late 1980s.”
The participating agencies each detail personnel to the task force, with troopers, deputies and officers deployed to high-crash areas or locations which the public has identified as problematic.
“My gut says it makes a difference, but I have not had the time to sit down and look at all the formulas to determine how successful that has been,” Bane said. “I think it’s going to take more time to be able to measure how effective the traffic task force is.”
“But again, looking at the numbers, and the fact that we’re dedicating our efforts in problem areas with that traffic task force, speaks well to what it is that’s going on in the county right now,” Bane said. “That level of cooperation, between the state and the Sheriff’s Office and the three towns, to address an issue like that, that’s something that I don’t know would have been possible 25 or 30 years ago, because there were manpower limitations. We weren’t really as geared toward those kinds of things in this county 25, 30 years ago as we are today.”
Though he withheld specific recommendations for the council until the presentation of the task force’s final report, due in June, Bane urged the creation of a permanent traffic safety commission to continue the task force’s work. The commission might also incorporate the ongoing “Tri-Agency” group, an assembly of state and county highway and law enforcement officials which predates the task force and meets once per month to discuss traffic issues.
“Traffic is a problem,” Bane said. “Traffic is a situation that will always be on the front-burner.”
However, Bane said one hotly-debated measure is not currently under consideration for use in Harford County: speed cameras.
Speed Cameras On Hold
Speed cameras have been in the public eye since late last year, when Baltimore City’s system drew criticism after citizens reported widespread malfunctions, including citations issued for vehicles that were not moving.
However, the use of speed cameras in Harford County school zones and construction areas would require enabling legislation from the county council, a move for which no county official has voiced strong support.
In an interview with Dan Rodricks on WYPR earlier this month [minute mark 28:10], County Executive David Craig said there is little local support for the devices.
“I was never in favor of speed cameras, personally, myself—neither was our delegation when they voted on that bill many years ago, and the county council is not in favor of it.” Craig said. “There’s just generally not any desire to do speed cameras.”
Likewise, Bane said in December that speed cameras are not on the horizon.
“It’s something that’s been out there, that I’ve looked at before in the past, and never really entertained it to any considerable degree in the past,” Bane said in an appearance on the Harford Edge on WAMD 970AM on Dec. 14. “I’m concerned about the controversy and I’m concerned about the criticism that people in our county would have directed toward speed cameras.”
Bane said he believes that, in the event speed cameras ever do come to the county, it should be the law enforcement agency overseeing the program which determines the structure for paying the camera vendors.
“It isn’t the fine that I’m worried about,” he said. “Really, if I had my druthers, if you got caught by speed camera, I’d like you to get the points on your driver’s license. But it’s a fine, it’s not points. It’s not the revenue that’s going to be generated, I could care less about the revenue, government is not in business to make a profit. What I’m concerned about is the safety. If the technology is such that there’s a camera system that will allow us to protect our children, if I did not at least explore that technology, I would not be doing my duty as the sheriff of Harford County.”
Instead of speed cameras, Bane said his current focus was on cameras for school buses. The devices would capture the license plate of vehicles which bypass stopped school buses—a trend Bane said he fears will lead to a child being injured or killed.
The use of school bus cameras will likely be a central recommendation in the task force’s final report later this year, he added.
“Do not be surprised if you see a recommendation in there that Harford County invest more in technology than we ever have in the past to enforce traffic safety—maybe even go after other legislation that allows us to use the technology that’s developing out there,” he said. “But I don’t necessarily have to wait on that. Right now, the thing that I’m most focused on is the school buses. I’m looking at the speed cameras too, but right now it’s the school buses that are front and center, only because it is more serious of a problem than we realize.
“I think that up to this point, we have been very lucky that we have not had a child struck by a vehicle and seriously injured or killed,” Bane added. “And if I don’t do something about that, in the future, we are going to have that. And if the public point fingers at me saying, ‘you should have done something,’ that is criticism that I would deserve. So I need to move on that, and that is something that I am very serious about pursuing.”