The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily made U.S. roads quieter.

Those quieter roads, successive studies and statistics have indicated, led to more speed and more complacency on the part of drivers. Today, with the pandemic mostly in the rear-view mirror, one of its sickening legacies is an elevated number of serious car accidents. That’s as true here in Maine as it is nationally. 

Each week, the news is filled with strange, sad stories of traffic violations – and the car crashes that result – in all manner of circumstances. They involve trucks, school buses, confusion, intoxication, distraction, speeding.

If you’re a road user in Maine, you probably don’t need to be presented with data to bear out the point. Using the road day to day, lately, is troubling enough.

Experts have struggled to pin down the precise reasons for the increase in accidents, injuries and fatalities; elevated speed as a consequence of diminished traffic is one of the theories; alarmingly frequent and cavalier use of cellphones is another.

The Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee was wrong, earlier this year, to reject a bill that would have increased fines for “hand-held phone use.” As the writer of a recent Maine Sunday Telegram op-ed pointed out, it’s bad enough that we’ve decided to restrict our concern to what’s happening with our hands; any phone use in cars brings the grave risk of distraction with it.


Whatever the reason, or mixture of reasons, we’ll quote the simple wisdom of Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, reflecting last December on Maine’s deadliest year on the roads since 2007. “It pretty much boils down to driver behavior,” Stewart told the Press Herald. “People need to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings, pay attention to the act of driving.”

According to a UMaine study released earlier this year, lane departure crashes account for more than 70% of roadway fatalities in our state. Drilling further into the numbers, researchers found that rain and snow, impaired driving, drivers being older and drivers not wearing seatbelts increased the odds of being injured.

Accidents will happen. More responsibility on the part of drivers, however, can reduce the rate at which they happen. Where roads are dangerous or tricky, drivers need to take exaggerated care.

There’s another school of thought that says: Start with getting the roads right. The sort of “safe system” approach as floated by Pete Buttigieg has found some traction in Maine; the Vision Zero strategy under development by the Greater Portland Council of Governments rightly pays attention to the most dangerous intersections and sections of our roads. 

“What if we stopped blaming individuals and instead took a hard look at our transportation policies and infrastructure?” Belinda Ray, the director of strategic partnerships at the Greater Portland Council of Governments, wrote in an op-ed last November. “What if we designed our roadways with the understanding that humans will make mistakes?”

Proponents of Vision Zero, a strategy that has been implemented throughout the world with encouraging results, have a point; places known to be treacherous for drivers should be straightened out. Poorly designed roadways, like traffic circles and challenging on- or off-ramps, should be reviewed and reconstructed. Construction, of which there is a jaw-dropping amount underway in parts of Maine, must not create confusion by introducing unclear signage or alternative routes.

But even with better designed roads, or blind spots removed or lower speed limits instituted, the buck has to stop with individual drivers. 

It is up to a driver to choose to drive with care; to observe speed limits, to put the cellphone out of sight, to avoid driving while intoxicated, to avoid driving when tired or preoccupied. The safest roads in the world would be rendered dangerous by speed and inattention. 

Correction (June 14, 2023): A previous version of this editorial misidentified the legislative committee that rejected the bill seeking an increase in penalties for phone use. It was the Transportation Committee.

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