May 30, 2024

Highway fatalities down in Maine

There were many high-profile car-accident deaths in Maine this year, but statistics show a downward trend.

As of late November, car fatalities were down 17 percent compared with last year, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

As of Nov. 20, there were 140 crash fatalities reported in Maine, down from 164 at the same time last year. In all, there were 183 fatalities in Maine last year.

Why the downward trend? One possibility is Maine’s mandatory seat belt law, enacted in 2007, that makes failure by motorists to use seat belts a primary offense. It’s possible more people wearing seat belts has contributed to fewer deaths in car accidents, McCausland said.

Even so, “I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule,” McCausland said. “And, because of high gas prices for most of the year, there has been less travel on Maine roads.”

The most recent car fatality in central Maine occurred Nov. 15, when a 17-year-old girl from Vassalboro died in a crash on Stone Road. Amanda Edwards was a passenger in a vehicle driven by a 17-year-old boy, who suffered minor injuries. The car went out of control and skidded sideways and into the path of another vehicle; the case is still under investigation by Maine State Police.

The trend in Maine has been fewer car accidents each year, going back at least a decade. According to the Maine Transportation Safety Coalition, there were 33,077 accidents last year; that’s down from 36,943 in 2002 and a high of 42,581 in 1997.

Seat belt use among Maine drivers has increased steadily in the last two decades. According to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, only 23 percent of Maine drivers wore seat belts in 1986, compared with 33 percent in 1991, 59 percent in 2002, and 79.8 percent in 2007. According to a survey of drivers conducted in June and July this year, 83 percent of drivers now use their seat belts, which is slightly higher than the national average, according to the highway safety bureau.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall A. Liberty said this week that his department has seen five fatalities from car accidents so far this year, which is typical for recent times.

Still, state and local law enforcement officials are addressing driving safety on several fronts, he said.

“We have been doing aggressive enforcement activities with ‘Click It or Ticket,’ and the Kennebec Underage Drinking Task Force,” Liberty said. “There may have been an increase [in car accident deaths] but we avoided that through aggressive enforcement.”

According to the Maine Transportation Safety Coalition’s 2007 statistics, speed was a factor in 47 percent of fatal crashes, while alcohol was a factor in 33 percent.

Coupled with education and “zero tolerance” for operating under the influence of intoxicants, efforts at reducing contributing factors of crash fatalities seem to be working, Liberty said. Key to the success of such programs, Liberty said, has been collaboration among Maine’s state and local law enforcement agencies.

“I hope so; I’m optimistic we’re aggressively working in the area of traffic enforcement to reduce speed and OUIs,” Liberty said.

Maine crash statistics (2007)

Crashes: 33,077

Deaths: 183

Estimated seat-belt rate: 79.8 percent

Lane-departure-related crashes: 74 percent of fatalities

Speed-related crashes: 47 percent of fatalities

Alcohol-related crashes: 33 percent of fatalities

Source: Maine Transportation Safety Coalition

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