Cars and trucks travel on the Maine Turnpike near exit 48 in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Fewer motorists on the roads during the pandemic didn’t translate to fewer traffic deaths in 2020 in Maine, officials said.

The number of road fatalities was 165 on Wednesday as the year drew to a close, compared to 157 the previous year, even though fewer people were on the roads, said Lauren Stewart, Maine’s highway safety director.

One theory is that motorists gave themselves the green light to speed when there were fewer cars and trucks and a less visible law enforcement presence when the pandemic took hold, Stewart said.

“I am sincerely hoping that folks continue to take it easy and slow down, be mindful of weather and road conditions, buckle up and drive sober,” she said. “This year has been hard enough without losing loved ones to roadway crashes.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t have year-end totals, but estimated road deaths for the first six months of the year were down 2 percent as traffic volume dropped 16 percent.

The number of deaths is projected to have grown from 1.06 per million vehicle miles to 1.25 per million vehicle miles, NHTSA said.

In Maine, the number of crashes is down by about 9,000 — 32,590 compared with 41,601 last year — but the number of fatal crashes is up, said Maine State Police Lt. Bruce Scott, who oversees the traffic safety unit.

Some of the data points to an uptick in reckless behavior.

For example, speeding tickets are down, but the number of tickets for criminal speeding — driving 30 mph over the posted limit — grew by a third in the first nine months of the year compared to the previous year, Scott said. The number of fatalities involving unbelted drivers also was up, he said.

Scott said there was a false sense among some motorists that police were too busy or unwilling to stop drivers during the pandemic.

In some cases, police officers were busy with civil disobedience and crowd management at the expense of traffic enforcement, he said.

“There were fewer law enforcement officers involved in proactive traffic enforcement,” Scott said. “The lack of visibility has created the perception that ‘There are fewer police officers and I can drive fast,'” he said.

In the new year, there will be an aggressive traffic enforcement campaign to address the “startling” trends, he said.

Maine’s deadliest year on roads was 1970 when 276 people died; the safest year was 2014 when 131 people died, officials said.

Story by David Sharp, The Associated Press