When COVID-19 entered our lives early last year, life in most places slowed way down.

You can count roads and highways among the exceptions.

The pandemic took a lot of people off the roads, as people worked from home and travel was restricted. So it was no surprise that the number of miles driven and vehicle accidents were both down last year.

But motor vehicle deaths in Maine in 2020 actually went up over the previous year – a result, police say, of an increase in reckless, distracted and impaired driving.

Nationwide, something similar happened, with traffic volume dropping 16 percent but estimated road deaths down just 2 percent.

The evidence backs up the claim that, faced with relatively empty roads and the COVID-related curtailment of enforcement from most police departments, many of the drivers left on the road felt free to drive dangerously.

State troopers are reporting more people driving at speeds as high as 100 mph. Indeed, despite the smaller number of vehicles on the road, tickets for criminal speeding grew by a third in the first nine months of 2020. There have been more accidents involving people not wearing their seat belts, too, police said.

Other drivers aren’t too happy with it, state police said this week. “We’re being contacted at really unprecedented levels by members of the public, who’ve reached out to us expressing their concerns about changes in behavior they’ve seen during their normal commute,” Maine State Police Col. John Cote said at a news conference Tuesday.

In response, the agency is working with the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety on targeted enforcement details to discourage high-risk driving.

They’ll be back to focusing on minor infractions as well, such as expired registration and inspection stickers, that became less of a priority in order to limit contact between police and the public during the pandemic.

Police must be careful not to add to the backload of cases stressing the state’s legal system. Nor should they put any more people in jail than absolutely necessary, as inmates in county jails remain unvaccinated, as does, in some places, a significant portion of jail staff.

But it’s clear the lax enforcement of the last year has emboldened some drivers. Soon, with vaccinations on the rise and summer on the way, Maine’s roads won’t be so empty anymore.

Those heavy-footed drivers, and others who have developed bad habits over the last year, will be joined by more Maine residents, some a little rusty behind the wheel, as well as millions of tourists, most of whom don’t know the roads.

With any luck, a crackdown now by police on reckless driving will send the message that behavior on the roads must return to normal – just in time to enjoy what we all hope will be a more normal summer.


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