While heavily traveled roads such as Congress Street in Portland have marked crosswalks for pedestrians, other roads in the state lack such safeguards and put pedestrians at risk, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine says. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The Bicycle Coalition of Maine is pushing for more education and improved roadway infrastructure for the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians, after pedestrian deaths in the state tripled from 2018 to 2019.

Kathleen Kirsch

According to data from the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, the 18 fatal accidents in the state in 2019 occurred mostly on dry roads and under clear conditions. Among those killed was Kathleen Kirsch, 63, of Scarborough, an aspiring novelist and substitute teacher who was struck by a car while she was riding along Route 1 in September.

Education is critical, said Jim Tasse, assistant director of Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which since 1992 has been advocating for safer roadways for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Tasse said the group is working to get a bill passed through the Legislature that would mandate basic traffic safety education in Maine schools. The bill is now before the Appropriations Committee awaiting funding.

“We are hoping we can get that across the finish line,” Tasse said.

More widespread awareness is needed, he said, noting roadway safety wasn’t in the media in 2019 as often as it was in 2018.

“One reason the numbers increased, we speculate, is there wasn’t as much media coverage of pedestrian fatalities. In 2018, after the first year of Heads Up! initiative, there was a lot of press coverage and that may have increased the awareness of the issue and caused drivers to pay more attention,” Tasse said.

Heads Up! was a joint venture between the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and the Maine Department of Transportation. Representatives from the two groups visited 21 communities across the state to talk about pedestrian and bicycle safety.

Distracted drivers continue to be a contributing factor to pedestrian safety, he said.

“We continue to see distracted drivers even though the hand-held ban has passed,” Tasse said, referring to a new law that went into effect in September making it illegal to hold a cellphone to call or text while driving. “When people are stopped, they are still typing, talking and not paying attention to the road. That is a source of ongoing concern. People are not paying their full attention to their automobile.”

Speed also continues to be a contributing factor, he said.

“The goal is to change the normative behavior because a lot of people feel going 10 mph about the speed limit is OK,” Tasse said.

Another issue is the lack of sidewalks, crosswalks and proper shoulders on state roads, making using those roads more dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians, Tasse said. The Maine Department of Transportation recently released a $2.6 billion three-year work plan that includes $32.5 million in funding for sidewalk construction, crosswalk improvements and other safety improvements.

Nicholas Brown, a highway safety coordinator for the state Bureau of Highway Safety, said both pedestrians and motorists need to be more aware when using Maine roads.

“Sometimes it can be the pedestrian. Sometimes it can be the drivers as well,” he said. “We try to make sure people are following the basic guidelines of safety. If you are a pedestrian, you should be wearing bright clothing, especially at night and if you are a driver, slow down around busy pedestrian areas.”

As the coalition continues its focus on education and advocates for better legislation, Brown said the Bureau of Highway Safety will continue its focus on roadway safety enforcement.

“The reason we focus on enforcement first is it contributes more to help reduce fatalities in the long run,” Brown said.

Brown said once again this year, the bureau will award grants to police departments in 21 high crash communities across Maine, including Portland, South Portland and Westbrook, to cover overtime so officers can “better enforce and focus on pedestrian safety with things like jay walking, crossing at the wrong time or going the wrong way.”

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