Maine State Police Troop D Commander Lt. Patrick Hood speaks Tuesday during a news conference in Augusta about increased efforts to crack down on unsafe motorists and other motor vehicle laws. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Concerned that motorists are increasingly behaving badly on Maine’s roads during the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to an increase last year in traffic fatalities, state police officials said Tuesday they plan to crack down on dangerous driving.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the state police over the past year have curtailed enforcement of minor traffic infractions not considered to be “life-safety” related infractions, including expired registrations and inspection stickers. The move was made to reduce interactions during the pandemic between police and members of the public to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But in that time, state police said, they have witnessed far too many people driving dangerously, including speeding or paying more attention to their cellphone than the road.

At a press conference Tuesday, officials announced the reduced level of enforcement is over and targeted enforcement actions are planned, including using airplanes to watch for speeders on the interstate.

“As we  get into 2021, we’re returning to our normal stance of targeted enforcement across the board,” Maine State Police Col. John Cote said. “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.

“They’re sharing the aggressive driving (and) high speeds, and expressing their concerns about that. So we really are going to be changing our stance, working in partnership with the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety to start trying to get a rein back on some of the dangerous driving that’s been happening.”

Lt. Patrick Hood, commander of Augusta-based Troop D, said there were fewer motorists on Maine roads during the pandemic, and fewer speed-related accidents as a result — 3,311 in 2020, down from 4,344 in 2019. But, he said, the number of fatalities on Maine’s roads increased from 157 in 2019 to 165 in 2020.

“Speed, distracted driving and impaired driving are likely a big part of that,” Hood said.

He said his fellow troopers are reporting more “high rollers” speeding on the interstate, and warned that driving 80, 90 or 100 mph is risky behavior. Despite safety improvements in cars, more reaction time is required when driving at those speeds. And when an accident does happen at high speed, the damage increases — to people and property.

Hood said targeted enforcement will include the state’s air wing, which identifies speeding vehicles from an airplane, a method that has been highly effective in the past. Police in the plane report speeding vehicles to troopers on the ground, who then pull them over.

Distracted driving also seems to be on the rise, Hood said, with drivers of all generations increasingly relying on cellphones. He said he is no different, and is on the phone while in his cruiser. But he said he uses Bluetooth, and urged others to do the same.

If people must talk on the phone, Hood said, they must follow Maine’s hands-free distracted driving laws and use Bluetooth or headphones to avoid driving one-handed.

Maine Bureau of Highway Safety Director Lauren Stewart speaks Tuesday during a news conference in Augusta about increased efforts to crack down on unsafe motorists and other motor vehicle laws. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, said the state has had at least 665 distracted driving crashes since the start of 2021. She said the bureau is buying advertisements in several news mediums to spread the word about traffic safety.

“The end goal is saving more lives on Maine roadways through fewer car crashes,” Stewart said at the press conference outside the Maine State Police barracks on Hospital Street in Augusta.

While Hood is hoping for voluntary compliance, he said the changes will likely result in more tickets written for driving infractions. He said people are free to contest the charges in court.

However, due to restrictions meant to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many courts in Maine have significant backlogs of cases, which prompted court officials months ago to ask police to curtail active enforcement of non-life-safety-related infractions to help ease the logjam.

Hood said he had not contacted officials in the state judicial system before announcing plans for stepped-up enforcement.

“Enforcement is going to fill that system,” Hood said in response to a question about the courts. “But we’re committed to working with those partners, and we will adjust accordingly. The idea is we want to make sure that somebody that wants a trial, and feels that’s their right, is able to do that in a timely fashion.”

Hood said later Tuesday that Troop G, which covers the Maine Turnpike, has been conducting violations bureau hearings online via Zoom. He said police plan to meet Thursday to discuss that issue.

After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills ordered the expiration dates for motor vehicle registrations would be extended. That extension has ended, however, and motorists are now required to have their vehicles registered and inspected.

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