Fire deaths near record low, motorcycle fatalities on rise

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PORTLAND (AP) – The number of Maine fire deaths came close to a record low in 2006, the number of homicides grew slightly from the previous year and older motorcycle riders contributed to a growing number of highway fatalities, officials said.

On the road, preliminary statistics showed the number of highway fatalities grew to 188 compared to 169 in 2005, and highway officials continued to be concerned about the trend toward older riders dying on motorcycles.

The 23 motorcycle fatalities represented the biggest number in a decade, and only seven of the victims were younger than 40, officials said.

One of the problems continues to be that older riders are getting back on motorcycles for the first time since their younger years without any additional instruction, said Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.

“They’re getting back on their bikes with little training, they’re going too fast, and they’re drinking,” she said. “Those, primarily, are the causes.”

The state plans to launch a public awareness campaign this spring targeting both riders and motorists to increase their awareness of motorcycle safety, she said.

The deadliest crash on Maine roads in 2006 involved not a motorcycle but a pair of cars colliding on icy Route 122 in Poland.

Killed in the violent collision early on Dec. 24 were six people, including four recent high school graduates. Six or more people have died in highway crashes only six times since Maine began keeping records in 1935, said Stephen McCausland of the Maine Department of Public Safety.

The average number of annual highway deaths this decade has been 202. The lowest number of highway deaths was 166 in 1982; the highest number was 276 in 1970.

As for homicides, the number grew from 19 in 2005 to 21 in 2006 and was punctuated by two incidents that garnered international news coverage.

A 19-year-old Canadian man killed two men on the state’s sex offender registry at their homes in Milo and Corinth on Easter Morning before taking a bus to Boston, where he killed himself after being tracked down by police.

And a cook was charged with killing three women at a bed and breakfast in Newry and a man in Upton over the Labor Day weekend.

The Newry killing, in particular, was extremely unusual, McCausland noted. The last time four people were killed in Maine was in 1992 when a Portland man set fire to an apartment house, killing two men, a young mother and an infant.

On a brighter note, the number of fire deaths dropped to 15 compared to 23 the year before, McCausland said. The number of fire deaths came close to the state’s all-time low of 12 fire deaths recorded in 1995.

The worst fire tragedy occurred in Limestone in February, when three people who’d run out of heating oil died from a fire that started in the kitchen, where they’d been using a wood stove and kitchen stove for heat, officials said.

There also were separate incidents in Biddeford and Lewiston of children dying from fires started by playing with matches.

Maine Fire Marshal John Dean said there was no single factor behind the drop in fire deaths. “We are trying to put people in safe environments through our fire prevention efforts but some of it is just luck,” he said.

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