Maine highway fatalities fall, but homicides at 19-year high

By David Sharp
Associated Press / January 2, 2009
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PORTLAND, Maine - Maine recorded the fewest highway deaths in 50 years in 2008, while the number of homicides grew to the highest level in nearly two decades.

The preliminary tally for highway fatalities on Maine roads was 152, making it the safest year since 1959, when the state recorded 136 deaths, the lowest recorded figure, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

One of the factors behind the decline was soaring gas prices over the summer that meant there were fewer cars and trucks were on the road.

From January through October, the number of miles traveled in Maine dropped in every month except April, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The biggest decline - 7 percent - came in June after regular gasoline topped $4 per gallon around Memorial Day.

"First and foremost, people traveled less. There were fewer miles traveled," said Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.

Another factor: The use of seat belts hit an all-time high of 83 percent in Maine, after a new law on April 1 made failure to buckle up a primary offense, subjecting first-time violators to $50 fines, Stewart said. Also, traffic enforcement was stepped up, she said.

Meanwhile, the number of homicides grew to the 31, the highest number since 1989, when 40 people were killed in the deadliest year in Maine history.

Earlier last month, Governor John Baldacci held a news conference to warn that the number of domestic-related homicides had doubled. That same day, James Cummings was shot to death in the home he shared with his wife in Belfast. The shooting remains under investigation.

Of the 2008 homicides, 19 were domestic related, or roughly two-thirds of the killings, McCausland said. Normally, about half of Maine's homicides are domestic related, he said. The latest domestic killing was a baby boy who was allegedly beaten in Wilton.

"The really sad, distressing number that sticks out is that five of those [victims] are defenseless little children," McCausland added.

The number of fire deaths in 2008 stood at 15, compared with the average of about 20 deaths per year in the 1990s, said Fire Marshal John Dean. The lowest number of fire deaths recorded in Maine was 12, set in both 2007 and in 1995, Dean said.

Fire deaths in Maine tend to be concentrated in the cold-weather months - there were no fire deaths between June 8 and Nov. 21. Dean remains concerned about the current heating season as more people switch to alternative fuels because of the economic downturn.

Dean expects more people to be using wood for heat, and foresees more use of portable space heaters. People should properly maintain their fireplaces and wood stoves, and be careful not to let combustible materials get near space heaters, Dean said.

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