Citing a spike in traffic deaths over last year, police agencies across Maine are ramping up patrols looking for drunk and drugged drivers during the Labor Day weekend.

At the same time, the Maine Turnpike Authority is predicting a weekend of heavy traffic, which has been running about 3 percent higher than last year.

Traffic deaths throughout Maine are up 24 percent from last year, and alcohol played a part in many of those fatalities, says the state Department of Public Safety. So far this year, 105 people have died on Maine roads, compared with 84 deaths on state roads during the same period in 2018.

“People are continuing to die because of drunk driving, which is 100 percent preventable,” said Lauren Stewart, director of the state Bureau of Highway Safety, which administers some federal highway funds. “If you drink and drive, you can expect to be pulled over.”

This year’s statistics stand out in part because last year’s traffic deaths were among the lowest in decades. There were 140 fatalities on Maine roads last year, down 33 from the 173 recorded in 2017.

The lowest number of fatalities was 131 in 2014, and there were 136 fatalities in 2011. The largest number of deaths was 276 in 1970.

“We’ve had some exceptionally safe years recently on Maine roads,” said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

But the number has gone up again so far in 2019 in part because of motorcycle deaths. McCausland said the state has seen 22 motorcyclists die so far this year, compared with 23 for all of 2018.

“And we’ve got a long way to go for the motorcycle season,” he said.

Increased enforcement already has been underway for two weeks at 37 agencies around the state that are receiving federal funding to pay for the extra shifts. The push will conclude on the Monday holiday, and police expect to focus heavily on York County, the department said.

McCausland said Memorial Day and Independence Day are the most concerning holidays for state police. Fewer people hit the roads on Labor Day because school has started for many Mainers. Still, a total of eight people have been killed in car wrecks during the past three Labor Day weekends in Maine.

Along with an increased police presence, Maine drivers should expect lots of company on the roads this weekend.

More than 1 million vehicles will be on the Maine Turnpike between Friday and Monday, the turnpike authority said.

Traffic on the toll highway has been up almost 3 percent this year from 2018, turnpike authority spokeswoman Erin Courtney said in a statement. Over 51 million transactions have been recorded at tollbooths so far in 2019, about 1.3 million more than last year.

Labor Day weekend is expected to be the fourth busiest traffic period of the year, after the first weekend of August, Fourth of July weekend and Thanksgiving, the turnpike authority said.

Northbound traffic is expected to be heaviest from 3to 5 p.m. Friday. Thick traffic is expected in both directions Saturday, while the worst southbound traffic is expected from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday.

Twin construction projects on the highway are not expected to affect traffic.

The Maine Turnpike Authority is constructing a new tollbooth in York, but has extensive plans in place to avoid traffic impacts through Oct. 14.

Construction on the Piscataqua River Bridge, about 10 miles south of the tollbooth construction, also is not expected to affect traffic. The bridge carrying Interstate 95 into Maine is undergoing a major rehabilitation project.

Work will not affect travel over the holiday weekend, but immediately after that traffic restrictions will start.

Southbound traffic over the bridge will narrow to two lanes from 8 a.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 7. Over the weekend, all three lanes will be open. Beginning Sept. 9, a single southbound lane will be closed from Monday morning to Friday afternoon, a pattern that will be in effect every week through Oct. 14.

Staff Writers Megan Gray and Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

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