OGUNQUIT — Perhaps it was my British accent.

But it was hard to escape a sense of a shuffling of feet and embarrassment when I asked about road safety at a gubernatorial debate at York High School a few weeks ago.

Of the three candidates who bothered to show up, Janet Mills mumbled something about distracted driving; her two fellow panelists did likewise. I would love to enlighten you about Shawn Moody’s response; alas, he did not grace us with his presence.

There is no polite way of saying this: Maine’s road safety record is appalling.

It is a rural state with a population of 1.336 million. Yet somehow, according to the latest statistics, there were 172 people killed on its roads last year – compared with 20 homicide victims.

To put that into context, 40 more people died in road accidents in Maine than in London – my home city – which has a population of just over 8 million.


I was even able to cycle to work in London without coming to any harm, which some would say is quite an achievement given the amount of heavy traffic thundering across the city.

There are times when I have found driving down Interstate 95 more of a white-knuckle ride than my 7-mile commute on two wheels back home.

In fact, the U.S. record overall is pretty poor.

According to figures produced by the World Health Organization, the U.S. road mortality rate was 10.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.

In the U.K., the figure was 2.9. If we crunch the numbers slightly differently, the statistics are still dreadful. For every billion kilometers traveled on U.S. roads, there were 7.1 fatalities; in the U.K., the figure was 3.6.

It is really hard to know where to start.


For reasons that escape me, Maine still allows motorists to use handheld mobile phones while driving. A bill did pass the Legislature last year that would have imposed a trifling $75 fine on anyone caught doing so ($150 for repeat offenders). Even this pretty timid measure was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

In the U.K., using a handheld mobile is not a very bright idea. Get caught doing it twice and you are off the road for a year – no ifs, no buts.

When I suggested that Maine might like to follow suit, there was a smattering of applause from the audience and more mumbling from the panelists.

I have had to take evasive action on more than one occasion to avoid being hit by a clown on a mobile. Even though it is illegal, it is not uncommon to see people texting while driving as well. My response is perhaps not something to be shared with a family newspaper.

In the U.K., using a handheld mobile while driving is almost as socially unacceptable as drunken driving.

Our drunken-driving penalties would seem draconian to the U.S. In the U.K., first offenders lose their license for year – not a trifling 150 days.


Admittedly, repeat offenders in Maine appear to get the book thrown at them, normally resulting in their spending time in a county penal facility.

Given the lack of public transport in Maine and how car-dependent people are, imposing the U.K. template is probably unrealistic.

But the laws do seem weak and the enforcement rather erratic.

As an outsider I am loath to comment about the standard of driving here as doubtless similar criticisms could be aimed at Brits. Nevertheless, I am puzzled why people overtake on the inside or coast aimlessly in the outside lane, oblivious to other cars on the road.

These practices are strongly discouraged in the Maine drivers’ manual.

In places, the situation would be eased by better road design, such as installing cats’ eyes (reflective road markers) on highways, making it easier to steer a straight course.

My real disappointment, however, is the apparent lack of serious interest in those seeking to reside in the Blaine House. Despite the death toll, the issue has not captured the imagination of the candidates, and beyond mouthing a few platitudes, none has come up with any serious proposals to tackle the problem.

Comments are no longer available on this story