BANGOR, Maine — Fatalities on Maine roads were at a 70-year low in 2014, according to state officials, who credit changes to laws, better enforcement and safety education for reducing the number of motor vehicle-related tragedies.
A deadly collision on Dec. 30 in Leeds that claimed the lives of a Winthrop father and his son brought the total number of roadway deaths in Maine to 130 for the year, the fewest since 1944, when there was wartime gas and tire rationing and 119 people died, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
“It’s the safest year in Maine since World War II,” McCausland said.
What also makes this significant is that it is concurrent with the allowance of heavier trucks and higher speed limits on Maine’s highways.
Unofficially, there were 14 fewer deaths on Maine roads in 2014 than in 2013, when 14 4 highway fatalities were recorded. The 2014 figure will not be final until the end of January and will include any deaths related to accidents in December, James Tanner, fatal accident system analyst for the Bureau of Highway Safety, said Tuesday.
There were 164 fatalities in 2012, and 136 in 2011. The deadliest year ever on Maine roads was 1970, when 276 people died.
A late-2011 congressional provision that allows tractor-trailer trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on all interstate highways in Maine for the next 20 years, may have helped to make roads safer, Tanner said.
“Commercial vehicle related fatalities dropped in 2014 to 10 fatalities compared to 18 in 2013,” the fatal accident system analyst said. “Maine averaged 16.2 commercial vehicle related crash fatalities from 2009 to 2013. Overall, Maine has experienced a decrease in the number of commercial vehicle related fatalities from 2009 when we experienced 23 commercial vehicle related fatalities.”
The 20-year deal was brokered by Sen. Susan Collins, who told the Bangor Daily News that a big rig traveling from Hampden to Houlton on I-95 rather than Route 2 would avoid 300 intersections, 86 crosswalks, 30 traffic lights, nine school crossings and four railroad crossings.
The highway bureau commercial vehicle data includes all tractor-trailers and 2- and 3-axle box trucks over 10,000 pounds, Tanner said.
Speed limit increases in 2014 on parts of Interstate 95, I-295, I-195 and I-395 that increased the maximum speed to 70 mph and 75 mph north of Old Town have not changed the roadway death numbers, McCausland said.
“We see no effect with the speed change,” he said.
Maine’s four-lane interstate highways are not the dominant location of road deaths, however. A national report released in July states that most fatal car crashes in Maine occur on rural roads, based on data from 2012.
Of the 164 fatal Maine crashes in 2012, 161 — or approximately 98 percent — happened on rural roads, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group The Road Information Program, or TRIP.
Education is a key factor in the Maine numbers dropping, according to Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.
“No one reason can be cited for this kind of decrease in fatalities, but I think [the Bureau of Highway Safety] have done a very good job of keeping behavioral highway safety issues in the forefront of people’s minds through public education, education in schools, sports marketing and the programs outlined in our Highway Safety Plan,” Stewart said in an email. “We have achieved an 85 percent observed usage rate for seat belts.”
Bureau grant funding has increased the number of tickets issued for speeding and for not using seat belts, Tanner said.
“Speeding for us is one of the leading factors in fatal crashes,” Tanner said. “Law enforcement this year really stepped up enforcement.”
The efforts seem to be making a difference. The percentage of fatalities involving speed has decreased every year since 2010. Fifty-two percent of the fatalities in 2010 were speed-related, and that percentage dropped to 51 in 2011, 48 in 2012, 34 in 2013 and 28 percent for 2014.
Decreasing highway fatalities is a team effort with the bureau working with law enforcement, communities and state legislators.
“Our Legislature has ensured that we have strong laws against impaired driving and texting while driving,” Stewart said. “Not all states saw a reduction in fatal crashes in 2014. I think Maine is unique in our commitment to work together toward common goals.”
The 2014 highway deaths included 11 motorcycle, moped or dirt bike fatalities, a decrease of two from 2013; 12 fatalities involving teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19, the same number as 2013; eight pedestrian fatalities, a decrease of three; two bicycle related deaths, a 50 percent decrease; and there was one moose-related fatality in 2014.
The biggest change was in the number of fatalities involving those age 20 to 24, with the number dropping by 33 percent from 15 to 10, Tanner said.
A total of 37 of the 130 highway deaths in 2014, or about 35 percent, involved speeders or those going too fast for road conditions, he said.