By David Marino Jr. / Bangor Daily News
Maine has seen a higher yearly increase in people being hit and killed by cars than almost every other state, a newly released report found.
Pedestrian traffic fatalities tripled in the first part of 2021 from the same period in 2020, according to new data from the Governors Highway Safety Association. The state was tied with Vermont in having the largest increase in the nation during that time.
Overall, Maine had nine pedestrian traffic fatalities from January to June last year, up from three during that period the previous year, the report found. Pedestrian deaths were up 17 percent nationwide during that time, with 3,441 people dying during the first half of 2021, according to preliminary data.
Pedestrian deaths have grown nationwide amid a surge in dangerous driving during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts.
With busy streets and a densely concentrated population, people in Portland are particularly at risk of being hit. That’s likely why the pedestrian crash rate is nearly five times the rest of the state: the city makes up around 5 percent of Maine’s population but 20 percent of its pedestrian collisions since 2010, according to Maine Department of Transportation data.
Pedestrian deaths in Portland have made up 13 (8 percent) of the 155 pedestrians killed in Maine since 2010.
There was one pedestrian fatality in the city last November and one in February, according to Portland police spokesperson David Singer. That November crash killed a 68-year-old man while a man of unidentified age died in the second crash.
Both were struck in the early hours of the morning, which Maine Bureau of Highway Safety Director Lauren Stewart said was not uncommon in recent pedestrian crash deaths in Maine.
There has been an increase in reckless driving and speeding during the pandemic, Stewart said, though she said many of the incidents included in the report involved specific circumstances, “one-offs” that can’t be generalized.
Stewart noted that a small increase in deaths in a state with a population size like Maine’s can lead to a significant uptick in rates compared to other more populous states. Still, she said it was upsetting that a larger number of people had died.
“That’s six additional people who lost their lives, and that’s terrible,” Stewart said.
Stewart said her department would continue to prioritize pedestrian safety across the state, including continuing its education efforts and providing grants to police departments to enforce laws to protect pedestrians like crosswalk enforcement.
Of Maine’s 22 communities with more than 10,000 residents, Portland, Biddeford, Lewiston, Augusta and Bangor had the highest rate of pedestrian crashes since 2020, according to Maine Department of Transportation data. That data does not include pedestrian crashes that are not reported to the police.
It is difficult to pinpoint a single factor as to why pedestrian deaths are increasing in Maine.
Factors that may have contributed to the number include an uptick in speeding and distracted driving, said Jean Sideris, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which advocates for bicyclists and pedestrians on Maine’s roads.
Sideris said that it was important for drivers to be aware of their own behavior, slowing down and never driving while impaired or distracted. They also should expect to see people biking and walking on roads, especially in populated areas.
But in the long-term, state and municipal officials need to take the lead on making roads safer for pedestrians. She hoped the Statewide Active Transportation Plan being developed by the Maine Department of Transportation would help make that a reality.
“Considering this disturbing increase, it is time to prioritize efforts to make our streets safer for people walking, using mobility aids, and biking,” Sideris said. “That means investing in sidewalks, multi-use paths, and design features that slow down drivers.”
As for pedestrians themselves, Stewart said it was important for those in urban areas to use crosswalks and carry a flashlight if visibility is low at night. And in rural areas, it was vital to walk against traffic and stay aware of your surroundings.
Officer Rocco Navarro of the South Portland Police Department said his department had spearheaded a number of initiatives to protect pedestrians in the city, including teaming up with the city’s public works department to add six new crosswalk beacons as well as anti-texting and speeding banners across South Portland.
The department also works with residents and other community partners through its Bicycle-Pedestrian Safety Committee to address areas where people speed. Navarro said his department’s devotion to the project was novel across the state.
“I feel that the City of South Portland is leaps and bounds ahead of neighboring departments when it comes to traffic safety and implementing mitigation efforts,” Navarro said.