Deaths on Maine roads drop in 2008

Posted Dec. 31, 2008, at 9:07 p.m.

A Lincoln woman who died after being hit while crossing the road in front of her house on Tuesday will be recorded as the last highway fatality of 2008, if no one dies on New Year’s Eve, officials say.

“As of today, it’s 152” people who have died in 2008 on Maine roads, Lauren Stewart, Maine Bureau of Highway Safety director, said at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the last day of 2008. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed that [another fatality] doesn’t happen.”

The 2008 number is considerably lower than 2007’s and is one of the lowest on record, she said.

“Last year, we had 183 traffic fatalities and the year before that it was 188,” Stewart said. “This is the lowest that I can see since 1976.”

Highway Safety and Maine State Police records show the three previous safest years since 1959 were 1982 when 166 people were killed in highway crashes, and 2005 and 2000 when 169 people were killed, Stephen McCausland, state police spokesman, said in a memo sent last week.

“The 1959 benchmark was 136 highway deaths,” he said. “The deadliest year ever for Maine highway deaths was 1970, when 276 people were killed.”

Of the 152 who died in 2008, two were age 14 or under, three were age 15, 14 were ages 16 to 20, 27 were ages 21 to 35, 38 were 36 to 50 years old and 68 were age 51 or older, Highway Safety figures state.

Expensive gas, which cost Mainers more than $4 a gallon earlier in 2008, a change to the state’s seat belt law and increased police presence are possible reasons the number of highway deaths dropped in 2008, officials say.

“Due to the increased price of gasoline, there were less miles traveled this year,” Col. Patrick Fleming of the Maine State Police said Wednesday. “There were [fewer] people on the highways. People were driving less.”

Statistics show that around 83 percent of Mainers are wearing seat belts this year, up from 80 percent for 2007, Stewart said.

“I suspect that that plays a part in fewer people dying in crashes,” she said. “We’ve had the same number of crashes.”

Seat belt use has been a state law for years, but it was modified in 2007 so that if police “see you’re not wearing your seat belt, they can pull you over for that alone,” Stewart said. “In April 2008, they started enforcement of it.”

Highway Safety also has provided a number of communities with grants to increase police presence, so “they’re catching the people before they crash,” she said. “I think it makes a huge difference.”

Fleming added there are other factors that made a big difference in this year’s numbers.

“Last year, we had four moose fatalities, and this year we didn’t have any,” he said. “Last year, we had three ATV fatalities and this year we didn’t have any.”

The number of motorcycle fatalities also dropped by three, he said, from 21 in 2007 to 18 this year.

On the flip side, four bicycle fatalities were recorded this year, compared to one in 2007, and two on-road snowmobile deaths happened this year compared to none last year.

The alcohol- and speed-related figures for 2008 are not in, but in 2007, “38 percent of the people that died died as the result of alcohol-related crashes, and 46 percent died as the result of speed-related crashes,” Stewart said.

If people continue to wear seat belts and pay attention to the roads and other drivers, the number of highway fatalities could drop again this year, she said.

The “31 people difference” between 2008 and 2007 highway fatality figures, is significant, Stewart said. “That’s a lot of families that otherwise would not celebrate the new year.”

nricker@bangordailynews.net

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