Maine’s roads got more dangerous last year. A recent report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that Maine had an 11 percent increase in traffic fatalities from 2005 to 2006. However, the 2006 Annual Assessment of Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatalities and Injuries also showed that overall the number of traffic fatalities in the United States decreased over the same time period. Why did Maine see an increase and what can be done to lower the number of traffic fatalities across the state?
One reason for the 11 percent increase in fatalities was that 2005, the base year in the equation, had the lowest level of fatalities since 2000. Though the death toll increased, the 188 roadway fatalities in 2006 still represents the second lowest total since the turn of the millennium. NHTSA’s report for 2005 showed that Maine’s fatality rate of 12.79 per 100,000 persons was lower than the national average of 14.66. But we were nearly double the rate of the best state that year.
One reason for the high rate of traffic fatalities in Maine is that each winter Maine drivers must deal with severe weather conditions. Snow-covered and icy roads make driving difficult, if not impossible, during frequent winter storms. Without fail, every winter, fatal car accidents occur because of snow and ice. In recent years, the astronomical increase in the cost of gasoline and road salt has forced some municipalities to reevaluate their plowing budgets.
Simply cutting back on plowing during fierce Maine winters is a recipe for disaster. Instead, many towns are using GPS technology to establish the most efficient plowing routes, entering agreements with surrounding communities to share the cost, and contracting out some work to the private sector. It is a delicate balance between being cost effective and being safe when it comes to keeping Maine roads free from ice and snow.
Another factor is the amount of time Maine residents spend on the road. U.S. Census data from 2000 shows that Maine workers commute an average of 23 minutes to work each day. One can imagine that these commute times will only increase as rising housing costs in Maine drive more residents out of costly urban areas in search of affordable homes. And the roads many Mainers drive to work on are not highways. In fact, the majority of commuters travel on secondary roads and rural routes. Based on simple probability, the more you drive, the more likely you are to be involved in an automobile accident. But with a stagnant economy and an increasing number of manufacturers moving their facilities out of state, it is unlikely that many rural Mainers will find good jobs nearer their homes anytime soon.
The most startling statistic involves Maine’s young drivers. In 2005, Maine ranked second highest in percentage of fatal accidents involving drivers between 16 and 20 years of age. In 2004, Maine fared one spot better, ranking third. More than one in five traffic fatalities in Maine involve young drivers, many of whom have young passengers along for the ride.
Many factors play into Maine’s ranking. One is the fact that many Maine teenagers have no access to public transportation. In cities with public transit, fewer teenagers have the need to drive and fewer kids on the road mean fewer accidents. Inexperience also plays a role in teenage driving deaths, as does alcohol and drug use.
The Maine Legislature is doing its part to try to decrease this disturbing trend. In 2003, laws were enacted to establish what is called a graduated driver’s license. That means that drivers under the age of 18 face restrictions on when they can drive and whom they can drive with. This past session, we passed a bill prohibiting the use of cell phones and electronic devices by young drivers while they are behind the wheel. The hope is that these measures will help to keep more of our children safe on the road.
These statistics matter to all Mainers. It is estimated that the economic impact on the state because of traffic crashes was $912 million in 2005. Traffic accidents tie-up our highways and roads. They cause damage to personal property. Injuries add to health care costs. The anxiety and grief of having a loved one, a friend or a colleague involved in a serious car accident can take an emotional toll, which is hard to equate in dollar figures.
Maine wants to continue to be known as Vacationland and increase our attractiveness to tourists. To do this we must keep our roads safe. We have to make the needed investments in our roads to make sure they are free of cracks, potholes and other hazards. We must also do things like widen shoulders, replace bridges and look for constant improvements.
If we take the necessary steps, we can reduce accidents and fatalities here in Maine. We can not afford to delay taking action.
State Rep. Phil Curtis, R-Madison, is a second-term legislator serving on the State and Local Government Committee.