With three days left in the year, Maine has seen 177 highway deaths, making it the worst year since 2007, when 183 people died.
Flowers, candles and other items lay in front of four crosses erected where four Maine Maritime Academy students died Dec. 10, 2022, in a fiery single-vehicle car crash on Route 166. Three other people in the car, including the driver, survived. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Maine is likely to finish the year with its highest number of highway fatalities in 15 years, as a pandemic trend of speeding and reckless driving continues across the state, officials said.

The unofficial number of highway deaths stood at 177 on Wednesday, making it the worst year since 2007, when 183 people died, said Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.

“It’s just horrendous,” she said.

More motorists are speeding and driving aggressively on the roads, representing a trend that started early in the COVID-19 pandemic when roads were lightly traveled and police were busy with other priorities. The bad driving behavior is continuing even as travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels, creating a greater risk, Stewart said.

About half of drivers engaging in risky behavior weren’t wearing a seatbelt, and about a third of motorists involved in fatal crashes were impaired by alcohol, drugs, or both, she said.

“We find that drivers are more aggressive. They’re in a hurry to get where they’re going. They’re only thinking of themselves, and not others on the road,” she said.

The deadliest crash of the year happened this month in Castine when an SUV hit a tree and caught fire, killing four Maine Maritime Academy students and injuring three others.

The Maine State Police are still investigating the cause of that crash.

Stewart said she hopes motorists use caution during the year-end holiday season. Each death represents a tragedy for someone’s family, she said.

“Our whole purpose in highway safety is to encourage people to drive safely so they can get home to be with loved ones,” she said.