State officials intend to redirect highway funding to improve safety on Maine roads and stem a rising trend of injuries and deaths among pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

Changes to transportation funding follow the completion of a report by a state task force on roadway safety. The task force was commissioned in February by Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt in response to a rising trend of vehicle collisions, specifically pedestrian deaths. It released its report publicly on Friday.

“We had a terrible year last year with fatalities on our road system,” said Joyce Taylor, chief engineer at Maine Department of Transportation. “That really was the trigger to say, ‘OK, how do we refocus our efforts?’ ”

As of the beginning of October, 15 pedestrians had been killed in Maine in 2017, compared to nine killed in the same period last year, according to data from the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. There were 132 total fatalities as of the start of October, compared to 107 in 2016.

To curb injuries and deaths on Maine roads, the task force recommended changes to road engineering plans, street design and more education and public awareness. The recommendations will be implemented in the department’s updated three-year work plan in January.

Practically, that may mean road projects with a greater emphasis on sidewalks and bicycling infrastructure, reduced speed limits, narrowed travel lanes and more visible painting and striping. The task force also recommended required training for all staff and contractors on a design policy that emphasizes road use by pedestrians, bicycles and motor vehicles. More variable message boards, signage and new safety videos and community outreach were also recommended.

A focus on safety means reconsidering traditional highway planning, which emphasizes getting drivers to their destination as quickly as possible, Taylor said

“In the past it was always about mobility. I think we have to go back to engineering and say we need to get from point A to point B, but maybe not as fast.”

In its report, the task force said speed, aggressive driving and highway design contribute to the trend of rising crashes in Maine and the United States, but distracted driving was a “particular menace” pervasive in task force discussion and recommendations.

Law enforcement and highway officials believe distracted driving, especially from cellphones and mobile devices, is a leading cause of vehicle crashes. Maine has a ban on texting and driving, but it is difficult to enforce. A law that would have banned drivers from using hand-held devices behind the wheel was passed by the Legislature this year but vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

The department is going to try to address distracted driving, but changing attitudes about using a cellphone behind the wheel will be a generational process just like curbing drinking and driving or improving seat belt use were, said MDOT Deputy Commissioner Jon Nass.

“It is going to take kids sitting in the back seat telling their parents to stop texting and driving,” Nass said. “There is no simple answer.”

Shifting focus to safety will mean reallocating scarce highway funding and finding money in new places. “It is going to be a lot of juggling of funds; it is a zero-sum game,” Nass said.

Members of the task force included MDOT staff and representatives from AAA New England, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, the cities of Portland and Lewiston, AARP, the Maine Motor Transport Association, Maine State Police, the Maine Turnpike Authority and representatives from the state’s disabled community.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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