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Although people in Maine drove less during the pandemic, there has not been a similar drop in fatal traffic crashes. Traffic experts attribute this worrisome trend to several factors, namely people driving faster on less congested roads and some people driving so infrequently that they’ve gotten worse at it.
Early in the pandemic, when stay-at-home orders were in place and many workplaces and schools were closed, vehicle traffic, measured by the number of miles traveled, dropped by a third in Maine. It has since rebounded, beginning late last year, to nearly the same as 2019.
Despite the significant drop for months, more people were killed in traffic crashes in Maine last year than in 2019.
In Maine last year, there were 165 fatalities from traffic crashes, according to data from the Maine Department of Transportation. That was a slight increase over the 157 deaths in 2019, but a significant rise when considering the substantial drop in the number of miles driven in Maine.
If there is a simple solution, it is this: Slow down and pay attention. And, wear a seatbelt — a high number of fatal crashes each year involve people who were ejected from vehicles.
Nationally last spring, traffic volume dropped by a half to two-thirds in typically heavily congested cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. In and around these cities, officials reported significant increases in people driving at twice the speed limit or more. There were also more reports of drivers going faster than 100 on interstate highways.
“We’re getting reports every week of dozens of drivers being cited for traveling over 100 miles an hour. That’s just insanity for our roadways,” Michael Hanson, director of the Office of Traffic Safety in Minnesota, told the Washington Post last year. Forty-two people were killed in traffic collisions in the first 45 days after the state’s March 16, 2020 stay-at-home order went into effect. By comparison, 29 people were killed on Minnesota highways during the same period in 2019.
“We have had half the traffic and twice as many fatalities,” Hanson said. “We have more available lane space for drivers to use and abuse … and people are really, really abusing.”
Speeding and distracted drivers continue to be a danger to pedestrians.
Last year, nine pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles in Maine. So far this year, there have already been eight pedestrian fatalities. Last month, three pedestrians, including a 1-year-old girl, were killed after being hit by a car in Augusta. The driver told police he fell asleep while driving on Cony Road, where the two women were walking while pushing a stroller off the roadway on the gravel shoulder. The crash is still under investigation.
In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office noted that pedestrian deaths grew by 43 percent between 2008 and 2018. The GAO found three factors in these deaths. They tended to involve large vehicles such as pickup trucks and SUVs, older vehicles with fewer safety features and speeds over 30 miles per hour.
The GAO recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been collecting data on vehicle-pedestrian crashes, include testing of vehicle safety features that are meant to reduce these crashes in its assessment of new vehicles as part of its safety rating system.
Car makers have seconded that call and are now urging the federal government to update crash test ratings to include modern safety technologies for the first time since 2011.
These technologies, which include forward collision warnings, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings and automatic high beam headlamps, should all be evaluated by regulators, an industry group said in April.
It will be a long time before most of us are driving cars that do most of the work of avoiding collisions. So, until then, Maine drivers need to slow down, put away the cell phone and pay attention to everything that is around them.