Reflecting on Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety in 2023

(PORTLAND, Maine) January 4, 2024 – 2023 was not a good year for pedestrians in Maine. Twenty-one people died on Maine roads after being hit by a vehicle, another 234 injury crashes were reported. One cyclist was killed and another 140 injury crashes were reported.* 

Maine can and should do better. Taking a walk or going on a bike ride on a roadway should not be a life-threatening activity. 

Sadly, 2023 appears to be in line with other recent years. For the past six years, we have seen similar numbers of injuries and fatalities, with a slight dip in 2020 when fewer people were driving. These incidents happened all across Maine, in rural and urban communities, during the day and at night, but nearly all were caused by passenger vehicles. The causes of the crashes are also varied and because there is no one cause, there is no one solution. Yes, we need to address the behavior of the road users but we also need to design our communities to better prioritize safety for everyone, especially vulnerable road users. This means designing roads so that cars are not always the prioritized use, and so that speed is not the prioritized function.

WHAT WE CAN DO TO DO BETTER- INFRASTRUCTURE, EDUCATION, & POLICY

The good news is that we don’t need to wait for infrastructure changes to do better. Right now, every single one of us can take action to improve the safety of our roads. All drivers should  slow down and look for people biking and walking. Drivers should respect the community they are driving through by obeying neighborhood speed limits. We should all resolve to drive 3 mph below the speed limit wherever the posted speed is 35mph or less.  

Research shows that drivers can get into a routine of only looking for other vehicles and therefore may not see a person walking along the road. We need to be mindful about watching for people outside of a vehicle, especially in neighborhoods, downtowns, or places where there are no sidewalks. Most importantly, never drive distracted (put away your cell phone) or impaired under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

People walking can also take simple measures to improve their safety. Use sidewalks and crosswalks if they are available. Push the button and use the traffic signal to cross. If no sidewalk is present, you should walk against traffic. Do your best to be visible (day or night)–wear lights, reflective materials, or bright colors. Most of us who drive know how difficult it can be to see that person walking or bicycling in dark colors after dark. 

Bike riders can also do things to improve their safety. Cyclists should ride with traffic and also do their best to be visible, with best practice being to use a red or amber rear light and white front light day or night. Wear a helmet, signal intentions, and obey traffic lights and stop signs.

These measures can help immediately if everyone adopted them, but to reach everyone, we also need more and better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists. We need to stop designing our transportation system to move vehicles quickly, and instead design it to move people safely and efficiently. We need to provide sidewalks and bikeways and well-marked and lit crossings, so there are designated and safe places for people to walk or bike. We need to include traffic calming elements in our downtowns and neighborhoods so that it is not convenient for drivers to speed. 

We also need a system to better educate drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists about the rules of the road and how to share the space, especially where there are few bike/ped facilities. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine (BCM) has tried for several years to have traffic safety education required in schools, but lawmakers continue to vote it down.

The Maine Department of Transportation’s (MaineDOT) recently-adopted Statewide Active Transportation Plan articulates several goals that would improve safety for vulnerable users. These goals include prioritizing improvements to on-road and off-road bike/ped infrastructure and updating state-level policies that guide transportation projects like the Complete Streets and Local Match policies. Unfortunately, the plan has no timelines, milestones, or designated funding to implement the goals, and we have not yet seen the updated policies, though we expect those in 2024. The BCM is monitoring the implementation of this plan closely and working with the MaineDOT and other stakeholders to make the goals a reality. 

Maine also needs to change how roadway incidents are described. Words matter. The BCM is concerned about police and media reporting on pedestrian and bicycle crashes that appear to put blame on the victim before investigations are complete. Reports that emphasize details that the pedestrian was not in a crosswalk, or was not wearing hi-vis clothing, imply the vulnerable user is to blame for the deadly crash while ignoring other potential contributing factors, such as speed. A pedestrian has a 90% chance of survival if hit by a car going 20mph, but that drops to 20% chance of survival with a car going 40mph. In a world in which speeding is often the norm, tougher questions need to be asked of drivers in incidents in which people are getting hit and killed in areas posted 30mph or under. Likewise, in cases where there is fatality or the victim is unable to give a statement, extra caution should be used in reporting that relies only on the driver’s account. Without a full investigation, we cannot know the cause of the crash. Nuances of phrasing can influence our perception of a crash, such as reports that describe the vehicle, not the driver, causing the crash, e.g. “a car hit John Doe.” This language disconnects the behavior of the driver from the incident. A 3000-pound vehicle can quickly, without malice or intent, become a deadly weapon–and drivers should operate their cars with their potential lethality in mind at all times.  

BRIGHT SPOTS FOR BIKING AND WALKING

Although the high number of pedestrian fatalities in 2023 is disturbing, there are signs of hope that some of the changes mentioned above may be adopted. According to the U.S. Census, the number of people biking to work increased by 26% in Maine over the period 2019-2022! Maine had the third highest increase (beat only by Rhode Island and Delaware). For walking, Maine saw a 3% decline over the same period, but only 9 states saw an increase. The increase in people using active transportation is the incentive we need to drive the bigger changes in Maine’s transportation system. 

Also, last year the MaineDOT launched its Village Partnership Initiative that seeks to address road safety for all users in village centers. The goal is to help communities “reclaim” their downtowns as human-scale places, not just pass through zones on state roads. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine applauds this program, as it builds in part on a project called Imagine People Here that the BCM launched in 2014. The BCM program has been installing temporary traffic calming materials to improve safety for people biking or walking for nearly a decade, with more than 30 projects completed around the state. The MaineDOT’s Village Partnership Initiative uses this same approach to install temporary or permanent infrastructure to slow traffic, create safe crossing for pedestrians, add bike lanes, or install other materials such as vertical delineators to make it safer for people biking, walking, or using mobility aids. The BCM is glad to see the MaineDOT invest in this approach and support more communities around the state. 

In other good news, the Greater Portland Council of Governments passed a Vision Zero policy in 2023, which aims to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2045. This is a great first step to setting clear goals for safer roads and creating policies and programs to support their efforts. 

So while 2023 was a grim year for pedestrians in Maine, there is always an opportunity to do better in 2024, and beyond.

Together, we can make 2024 a safer year for people biking and walking! If you care about this issue, we invite to you become more involved with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine www.bikemaine.org

* Injury crash data based on MaineDOT Crash Query Tool accessed 1/4/2024; fatality data based on the BCM tracking. The BCM tracks any person outside a vehicle killed by vehicle impact, which includes incidents that occur on a road, in a parking lot, on a work site, or other location where a pedestrian or cyclist is hit. The MaineDOT may not use the same criteria for fatalities.

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The Bicycle Coalition of Maine works to make Maine a better and safer place to bike and walk. Founded in 1992, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine has grown into the leading bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group in the state. The Coalition believes all Mainers should have access to bikes and bike education, and we envision a future where Maine’s roads, public ways, and trails are safe and accessible, resulting in cleaner travel options, improved health, and stronger economic benefits for Maine communities.

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