Fatalities on the roads in Maine and around the nation have risen sharply in the past several years, taking a huge toll on society. In 2017, for the second consecutive year, over 40,000 people across the country died in automotive crashes. On Maine roads, according to the state Department of Transportation, 150 motorists, 20 pedestrians and two bicyclists were killed last year. Speeding is cited as a leading cause of these deaths.

At the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, we hear from people around the state who are upset about their “rural roads becoming highways,” people afraid to cross the road to their mailboxes for fear of being mowed down by a speeding vehicle. This is an appeal to everyone: Drive more slowly. Roads are for people, not just cars.

National Safety Transportation Board research shows that speeding increases not only the risk of being involved in a crash but also the severity of injuries sustained. “You can’t tackle our rising epidemic of roadway deaths without tackling speeding,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalk, “and you can’t tackle speeding without the most current research. Speed kills.”

Despite this fact, speeding does not evoke the same outrage as operating under the influence, or garner the same attention as distracted driving. Speeding has become acceptable behavior. Driving in Maine with motorists going well over the speed limit is a common experience: Vehicles in 65-mph speed limit zones are driving 80 mph on highways, and on narrow back roads with no shoulder and no room for error, cars often travel 10 mph or more over the posted speed limit. For a better quality of life, where more people feel safe and comfortable to walk or ride a bicycle, this needs to change.

Too often, drivers view the speed limit as a suggestion. Under Maine law (Title 29-A, Section 2073), the reasons for restricting the maximum rate of speed are to “minimize the danger of accident, promote the free flow of traffic (and) conserve motor fuel.” These are all important reasons for obeying the law and adhering to speed limits.

More critical than driving the speed limit is knowing when to drive below the posted speed limit. The road conditions in Maine regularly call for slower speeds. Maine law and the State of Maine Motorist Handbook and Study Guide list the conditions that require a lower speed than what is posted. The handbook states: “If road and weather conditions make the posted speed unsafe, you must slow down.” The law is clear: If you cannot see well because of rain, snow, sun or limited sight distance, the first step is to slow down.

For a person who’s on the edge of the road and not in a car, it can be terrifying to be passed by a motorist driving 50 mph with less than 3 feet of clearance (the legal distance for passing), yet it happens every day all over Maine. Tragically, a 15-year-old girl riding a bicycle was recently killed in Belfast on a street where the posted speed limit is 55 mph.

The margins for error when bikes and cars have to share the road are dangerously slim. Studies of car and pedestrian crashes have shown that there is a correlation between the speed of the car and a fatality. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration data confirm that just 5 to 10 mph can make a dramatic difference in whether a person hit by a car lives or dies. Five percent of pedestrians hit by a vehicle traveling 20 mph will die. When a vehicle is traveling at 40 mph, the fatality rate skyrockets to 80 percent.

Recently, Maine lowered the cost of speeding tickets by 15 percent, to be more in line with other New England states. The rationale is that the reduction in fines will result in more tickets being issued instead of warnings. Stopping more vehicles for breaking the law should help reduce the number of speeding vehicles on the road. However, the optics of the messaging are disturbing, as it could be interpreted that Maine is de-emphasizing the dangers associated with speeding. Time will tell whether lowering ticket fines is an effective measure.

Speeding increases the likelihood of severe injury or death, and the cost of speeding in the loss of human life, medical bills and property and environmental damage, has a tremendous negative impact on society.

Biking and walking are healthy and environmentally friendly modes of transportation and recreation. It’s essential that we reduce speeding so more Mainers are able to use the state’s roads in a way that benefits individuals and society as a whole.

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