A truck drives down the ramp at the eastern end of I-395 in Brewer in 2019. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

More Mainers have died from fatal crashes in 2020 than last year even with less traffic amid the coronavirus pandemic, with a state official citing cases of reckless driving on more open roads.

As of Friday, 158 people have died in car crashes in Maine this year, which is 11 more than the number who died by the same date in 2019 and one more than died in all of last year, according to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety data.

At the same time, Maine saw a drop in vehicle miles traveled of up to 30 percent early in the pandemic, which began here in March, according to Robert Skehan, the director of the Maine Department of Transportation’s safety office. Traffic has picked up and has been about 6 to 9 percent lower than the same weeks in 2019, according to weekly reports from the department.

This trend has also been seen in other states, with an overall increase in reckless driving resulting in more crashes on emptier roads. While Skehan said he cannot quantify the reason for the uptick since the department has not finished analyzing crash reports, he has seen many finding speed is a factor with drivers “feeling comfortable to go fast.”

“We’re concerned with the numbers that we’re seeing given the traffic reductions,” Skehan said.

The uptick in fatalities comes as there have been fewer total crashes — which include crashes with only property damage, crashes with both minor and major injuries and fatal crashes — for the first 11 months of 2020 in Maine compared to the same time period last year.

From Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, 2019, there were 31,150 crashes, according to state data. During the same timeframe in 2020, there were 25,382 crashes. Early December data is incomplete and it is usually the peak for car crashes due to weather conditions, Skehan said.

In general, most crashes don’t result in injuries. About 85 percent of all crashes on Maine roads have not resulted in any injuries for the past few years, according to state data.

Another reason serious crashes might not have gone down proportionally with traffic is that since people are driving less, they may not be as good at it due to lack of practice, Skehan said.

“People that are driving infrequently are maybe not perceiving the environment around them on the highway as quickly as they used to,” he said.