February 23, 2013

Portland earns dubious reputation: It's accident-prone

As the state decides where to direct funds to improve safety, officials concede there's never enough money to fix all the tricky intersections and distracted driving in the state's largest city.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Explore maps of trouble spots in Maine and metro Portland
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Use the interactive map to see the highest-crash traffic sites in your area.
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The intersection of Allen and Washington avenues, shown in January, makes the list of top crash locations in Portland. “We have a lot of tricky intersections and a lot of aggressive drivers,” said Jeremiah Bartlett, the city’s transportation systems engineer.

Gabe Souza/Staff photographer

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Northbound traffic on Tukey’s Bridge on I-295. The state chooses 15 to 30 projects every year to receive safety improvement funds, and officials say the spending almost always translates to lower crash numbers.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Robert Gustavson of Falmouth was exiting Interstate 295 onto Forest Avenue last November. A car was stopped ahead of him. Once the road was clear, the car in front moved into the lane. Gustavson followed, looking left to make sure the road was still clear. As he looked back, the car in front of him inexplicably stopped, and Gustavson rear-ended it.

"It was my fault, but I think the driver in front of me was confused or distracted," he said. "I've seen that a lot there."

It appears confusion and distraction might be elevated in Maine's most populous city and county.

The Maine Department of Transportation collects crash data every three years that it uses to rank intersections and segments of road throughout the state. The data is used to help identify where the state's safety dollars should be spent, a discussion currently taking place among transportation officials as they develop the next work plan for road projects.

Eight of the top 20 high-crash sites -- identified as an area with at least eight crashes in a three-year period -- between 2009 and 2011 were in Cumberland County. Four were in Portland, including the site of Gustavson's accident.

The MDOT weights the data, comparing the number of crashes against the volume of vehicles, so the higher traffic volume does not necessarily correlate to a higher number of accidents. An intersection in Minot could have as much chance of making the list as an intersection in Portland.

So why are Cumberland County and Portland so well-represented on such a dubious list?

"We have a lot of tricky intersections and a lot of aggressive drivers," said Jeremiah Bartlett, the city's transportation systems engineer.

Sgt. Troy Bowden with the Portland Police Department's traffic division said officers patrol and enforce wherever they can, but it's unlikely that police cruisers would ever be stationed at any of the identified sites.

One big factor that makes Portland more accident-prone, he said, is that it draws considerable traffic from outside the city, both as a commerce center and as a tourist destination. That means there are more drivers on Portland roads who are less familiar with them.

State transportation officials said the highest-crash sites are not always the most dangerous. In some cases, an intersection may see a high rate of crashes, but the majority of those might be fender benders, while in other cases, a stretch of road might see only a few accidents, but most are serious or fatal.

For the top sites identified in Portland, the majority of crashes are minor nuisance accidents, with Interstate 295 the culprit in each. Two off-ramps from I-295 onto Forest Avenue are on the list. Another site is the entrance to I-295 at Baxter Boulevard. Another is near the on-ramp to I-295 from Congress Street. Of the top 15 crash sites in Portland, eight involve I-295.

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Additional Photos

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A driver merges onto Interstate 295 north from Baxter Boulevard. Accidents at that on-ramp and other high-crash sites in Portland are mostly fender benders, officials say.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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The northbound on-ramp to I-295 from Baxter Boulevard, photographed on Jan. 16, is one of eight multiple-crash sites in Portland involving the interstate highway.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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