Nineteen pedestrians have been struck and killed by automobiles on Maine roads so far in 2021, putting the year on track to be one of the deadliest in two decades.

Transportation safety officials urge caution from motorists and walkers to prevent more tragedy. For drivers, that means slowing down and staying vigilant for people in a crosswalk or on the shoulder of a road, said Maine Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Joyce Taylor.

“It seems like we have to remind people that when you are driving a vehicle it is a weapon, it is capable of hurting and killing people,” Taylor said.

In 2021, those people have included Barbara Maxim-Hensbee, 69, her one-year-old granddaughter and Rosalyn Jean, 62, struck and killed by a vehicle on Cony Road in Augusta on a May afternoon. Lisa Reynolds, 47, was killed by a pickup truck on Route 302 in North Windham after dark in September. Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Gross, 44, died after being hit by a pickup truck as he picked up debris at the scene of a vehicle crash on Route 3 near Ellsworth.

Margaret Reid, 38, of California was walking with her 6-year-old son on Route 196 last week when she was killed by a car that drifted across the center line and onto the other side of the road. Police said they believe the driver had fallen asleep on his way home from an overnight shift.

“There is an obligation when you are behind the wheel,” Taylor said. “You have to be thinking; ‘I have a responsibility to have eyes on the road, to be vigilant. There are a lot of people out there walking that do not have a choice. They may not have reflective clothing.”

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Similar messages about caution are repeated nearly every year. The calls get louder when the death toll climbs. State officials raised alarms in 2015 when 18 people died in pedestrian-vehicle crashes, a two-decade high. Two years later, 20 pedestrians were killed.

Though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t yet have numbers on pedestrian deaths nationwide in 2021, it estimated in October that 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of the year, up 18.4 percent over the first six months of 2020. The NHTSA report noted that there has been a marked increase in fatalities on the nation’s roads during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts at Maine’s Department of Transportation, as well as bicycle and pedestrian advocates, recognize that the way Maine’s highway system is constructed makes it likely people will be injured and killed by vehicles walking on Maine roads.

“Our infrastructure is really not bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly in most places,” said Lauren Stewart, director of the state’s Bureau of Highway Safety. “It is really built for motor vehicles and a lot of the time it is built for motor vehicles to drive speeds that are in excess of the posted speed limit.”

An infusion of federal cash from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill could spur more investment in safer roads for everyone.

The number of pedestrians killed on Maine roads fluctuates year to year. There were 17 fatalities two years ago, then nine last year. And then came this year. Pedestrian deaths account for 13 percent of all vehicle crash fatalities in 2021, Stewart said.

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Weather, driver and pedestrian behavior, distraction, time of day, and speed can all contribute to a fatal crash, Stewart said. That makes trends difficult to identify and solutions hard to find. Most pedestrian fatalities happen in rural areas, which is unsurprising in Maine, Stewart said.

Fatal crashes are split evenly between daylight and darkness, according to crash data collected by the Maine Department of Transportation. Weather isn’t an indicator either – more fatal crashes occur in dry, clear weather than when it is cloudy and wet.

“Over the years we have generally seen an increase in pedestrian-motor vehicle fatalities,” Stewart said. “That doesn’t answer the question as to why – there is not really one thing we can pinpoint.”

For drivers, safety means always being aware that someone probably will be walking along the road, said Jean Sideris, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. Reducing speed is critical.

“Your responsibility as a driver is greater because it has the potential to become so dangerous so quickly,” Sideris said. “Speed continues to be a real issue. Small increases in speed dramatically increase the risk of injury and fatality.”

For pedestrians, staying safe means wearing highly visible clothing, walking against traffic and being predictable, Sideris said.

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MAKING ROADS SAFER FOR EVERYONE

But making roadways safer for everyone requires rethinking how highways are designed and used, Sideris said. That can only happen when transportation policy makes pedestrians and cyclists a priority.

Adding elements to street design such as bike lanes, wider shoulders, crosswalks and better public transportation could reduce overall costs by drawing cars off the road, Sideris said.

“We would certainly like to see it a priority to get people out of their cars and using public transportation or walking or biking,” she said. “I get that budgets are tight and there is a lot of demand (on them). But if we make the decision to prioritize non-single occupant vehicle transportation, and those facilities and investments are less costly, that seems like a win-win.”

It is difficult to build safety improvements or extend reliable public transit in a state with 8,800 miles of state roads, many in rural and sparsely populated areas.

Maine’s highway budget has about a $232 million annual shortfall and investments in bicycle and pedestrian construction account for a tiny fraction of the total.

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Road and bridge construction often includes designs for bike lanes and better pedestrian access, said Taylor, the state’s chief engineer. But the impact is limited because so little roadway is built or rehabilitated – about 39 miles a year. Instead, the state relies on regular repaving, which doesn’t offer the same opportunities to add safety features.

The state is looking to grant programs in the federal infrastructure bill to support a new program that will focus on slowing traffic in village centers across the state and improving conditions for bicycles and pedestrians.

It also will include construction projects intended to fix unsafe pedestrian areas identified through Heads Up, a citizen input process in 21 towns and cities.

Quick fixes aren’t easy. Built correctly, new roads can last a long time. But if the department extends a shoulder or adds a sidewalk without addressing drainage and support, it won’t remain in good shape for long, Taylor said.

“It is not as easy as just going out and slapping pavement down. I think that is what is frustrating for a lot of people; that’s what they want us to do.”


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