Maine will finish 2022 with its highest number of traffic fatalities in 15 years.

The preliminary number of deaths stood at 177 on Wednesday, Dec. 28, according to Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. It was the worst year since 2007, when 183 people died.

“It pretty much boils down to driver behavior,” Stewart said. “People need to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings, pay attention to the act of driving.”

Stewart said speed is a factor in most crashes, and about 50% of the fatalities also involved people who weren’t wearing a seatbelt. People started driving faster and more aggressively when traffic was lighter than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they haven’t slowed down even though motorists have returned to the roads.

Nationally, traffic deaths soared to a 16-year high of almost 43,000 in 2021, a 10.5% increase over the previous year, and a trend experts also attributed to risky driving behaviors that began in 2020. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not yet published complete data for 2022, the first half of the year again indicated an overall increase, with an estimated total of about 20,000 people killed. Officials predicted a slight decline in the second half of the year but still expected nationwide fatalities to be at high levels.

“It started during the pandemic when there were fewer cars on the road, but it hasn’t abated,” Stewart said.

This year also saw a significant increase in the number of traffic deaths among people age 20 to 24. In both 2020 and 2019, the number of fatalities in that age group was 10. This year, so far, it is 17. Stewart said those drivers can be hard to reach with public safety messaging because they do not always consume traditional media such as television programming. The state will conduct focus groups in the coming year with people in their early 20s in hopes of creating more targeted campaigns.

The state’s data on overall traffic fatalities is considered preliminary because new information or reviews of crash records can lead to slight changes in the annual numbers.

The deadliest crash of the year happened this month in Castine when an SUV struck a tree and caught fire, killing four Maine Maritime Academy students and injuring three others. State Police are still investigating the cause of that crash.

This year’s traffic fatalities include 20 people struck and killed by vehicles in Maine, the third time in six years that the number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths has been so high. Those victims included Tina White, a 46-year-old woman from Turner who was killed during her regular walk in a July hit-and-run, and Michelle Demchak, a 59-year-old nurse from Madison who was hit while helping another motorist during a November ice storm. The deaths also included two bicyclists, the same number as in 2021 and 2020.

“It’s been another upsetting year to see these numbers … if not increase, stay relatively steady,” said Jean Sideris, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “It seems, as always, that there is not just one reason why these are happening. That’s difficult to wrap your head around because that means there’s not one solution to reduce these fatalities.”

Sideris said solutions need to include more infrastructure and facilities for people who are walking and biking. She also agreed that motorists are driving faster in recent years.

“What I hear as the No. 1 reason people don’t walk or bike more is because they feel unsafe on the roads because of speeding,” she said. “I think that is a combination of how we design our roads … and I think there has been an increase in speeding and reckless driving.”

Sideris encouraged drivers to be on the lookout for people walking or cycling even during the cold and dark winter months, and said pedestrians and cyclists should wear bright clothing as much as possible when on the road. She and Stewart both encouraged people to slow down and use caution when they get behind the wheel.

“Our whole purpose in highway safety is to encourage people to drive safely so they can get home to be with loved ones,” Stewart told The Associated Press.