PORTLAND, Maine — Even as drivers are increasingly distracted by cellphones, email and texting, the number of highway deaths dipped to the lowest level in more than five decades in Maine and to an all-time low in neighboring New Hampshire in 2011, officials said Sunday.
The downward drive continued in Maine, New Hampshire and several other states a year after highway deaths nationwide fell to levels not seen since 1949, with experts citing variety of factors including high gas prices, better safety equipment on cars and increased safety belt usage, among other things.
In Maine, the 136 fatalities recorded through midnight on New Year’s Eve represented the lowest figure since 1959, when there were also 136 highway deaths, and the second-lowest since 119 people died on roads in 1944, when gas-rationing was in effect during World War II, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. Maine’s records go back to 1935.
Ohio and Connecticut were also near record lows in 2011. All figures are considered unofficial because they could grow if people who were injured in crashes die.
Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, said she’s pleased by the downward trend as a professional, but she isn’t jumping with joy.
“It’s important for us to celebrate the good work we’ve done here, but we don’t want to minimize those people who died,” Stewart told The Associated Press.
In New Hampshire, the 87 fatalities represented the lowest in the state’s history, beating the previous low of 105 in 1960, said Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency. New Hampshire’s highway deaths data date back about five decades, he said.
Declining highway deaths represent a trend that started in 2009, according to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2010, 32,885 people died in traffic crashes in the United States for the lowest number of fatalities since 1949, the agency said.
Typically, highway deaths drop during a tough economy as people cut discretionary spending and roll back the numbers of miles they travel.
There are other factors at play as well. In Maine, the state is using grant money to step up traffic enforcement and the state continues to hammer away at efforts to educate motorists about the dangers of distracted and impaired driving, Stewart said. Another factor is improved safety of modern vehicles.
One factor that seems to go against the downward trend is the fact that more drivers than ever seem to be distracted by cellphones. Over Christmas weekend, Stewart said she saw several drivers texting and one driver even reading. It’s also common to see people eating fast food or fiddling with their music systems.
In December, the five-member National Transportation Safety Board encouraged states to ban texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving. The board made an exception for devices which aid navigation, like devices utilizing GPS. Maine has banned texting while driving, after lawmakers concluded that a broadly worded “distracted driving” bill didn’t work. New Hampshire also banned texting while driving in 2011.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said he’s encouraged that 35 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws banning texting while driving. The laws represent a changing attitude toward distracted driving, just as people have changed their attitudes about seat belts and drunken driving.
“These laws reflect changing public attitudes — and public intolerance — of driver distraction,” said Strickland. The number of deaths can be further reduced, he said, through education, good laws, aggressive enforcement “and more than anything else, personal responsibility.”
In Maine, the state boosted the speed limit to 75 mph on a 110-mile stretch of I-95 between Old Town and Houlton in September, but that hasn’t led to an increase in crashes, McCausland said.
Maine’s number of highway fatalities spiked during the last week of the year, when 11 people were killed in traffic accidents. Maine’s deadliest crash of the year came on Christmas Day, when a sport utility vehicle slid into the path of a car in light snow on Route 3 in Palermo. Two brothers in the SUV and a father and son in the car died instantly; both vehicles were en route to Christmas gatherings.
Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield contributed to this report.