During a 10-day period earlier this month, two pedestrians and one bicyclist were killed on Maine roads. While these deaths are shocking, they are, sadly, not unusual. Fatalities in motor vehicle crashes increased by nearly 8 percent last year, according to data from the National Highway Safety Administration. This was the largest increase in deaths in half a century.
The biggest rise in deaths happened among pedestrians and bicyclists. Bicyclist fatalities rose by 13 percent, the NHTSA numbers show, while 10 percent more pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes last year.
Maine has equally troubling trends, especially regarding walkers. In 2015, 19 pedestrians were killed in Maine, the highest number in at least a decade and nearly double 2006’s 10 fatalities. Most of the fatalities were in rural areas, though pedestrians also were killed crossing downtown streets in Bangor and Lewiston.
James Tasse, assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, attributes the rising death toll to two things: distracted driving and speed.
If a pedestrian is hit by a car traveling 20 mph, a pedestrian has an 80 percent chance of survival, Tasse said. If the car is going 40 mph, the chance of survival drops to 20 percent.
A driver’s ability to see a pedestrian or bicyclist is another major factor. Vehicle and walker or bicycle crashes tend to increase at this time of year because sunrise and sunset, when drivers can be blinded by the light, happen during the morning and evening commutes. In addition, it is often twilight when commuters are heading home, making visibility problematic.
We’ve all heard the warnings: Wear bright colors when you’re walking along a road, face traffic and use crosswalks. Wear bright colors and lights and obey traffic rules when bicycling. Slow down and don’t text and drive; don’t drink and drive. But these messages clearly aren’t enough.
On Oct. 10, Matthew Perry died after a pickup truck hit him in a parking lot in Biddeford. The same day, Carol Eckert, a doctor, was riding her bike near her home in Windsor when she was hit by a truck. The driver said he did not see her because he was blinded by the sun. She died three days later. James Demeritt was killed Oct. 20 when he was hit by a van in Augusta. He was wearing dark clothing and walking in the middle of the road, according to police reports.
The Maine Department of Transportation has convened a working group to develop messaging to draw attention to the problem and strategies to reduce crashes with bicyclists and pedestrians.
The group is challenged by the fact that there are no easy answers, according to Patrick Adams, DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian program coordinator. For example, whom should an ad campaign target — drivers, walkers, bicyclists or all of them? For each group the message is different. One commonality, however, is that drivers, walkers and bicyclists must do as much as possible to minimize their risks.
Infrastructure changes to increase bicyclist and pedestrian safety, such as walking and biking lanes with barriers to separate them from automobile traffic, are unlikely in sparsely populated rural Maine. Rumble strips are an effective tool for keeping drivers on roads and in their lanes, thereby reducing head-on collisions and cutting the risk of a vehicle hitting someone on the side of the road, Adams said. But people don’t like them in residential areas because of the noise made when vehicles drive over them, Adams said.
Tasse suggests that police more thoroughly investigate crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists to ensure that drivers weren’t distracted or engaged in other dangerous behavior. Charges are rarely brought in such crashes.
Unlike diseases or drug overdoses, there is little public outrage about traffic deaths, which claimed 156 lives last year in Maine. Drivers, walkers and bicyclists are human and make mistakes. Working to minimize those mistakes on Maine’s roads must be a higher priority.