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

(Continued from page 2)

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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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John Duncan, director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, a planning agency, said the list of high-crash intersections rarely comes as a surprise to anyone in the transportation industry, but he said identifying the sites is only half the battle.

"A lot of locations are either really expensive to fix or extremely difficult to fix," he said.

Duncan said that whenever he has approached MDOT staff about safety-funded projects, the response has been good.

"We don't do it every year," he said. "Maybe we should."


An intersection's place on the high-crash list does not guarantee funding, particularly immediate funding.

A six-way intersection at Deering and Brighton avenues near the University of Southern Maine campus made the state list between 2006 and 2008 but was not chosen for funds. Portland officials have discussed changes, including the possibility of a rotary, but nothing has happened yet. That intersection was not on the MDOT's most recent list.

"It can be years between when you identify a problem to getting it fixed," said Bartlett, the city's transportation systems engineer.

Some of the highest crash sites from 2009 to 2011 were the same as those from 2006 to 2008, while others have moved up the list considerably. One of the I-295 off-ramps onto Forest Avenue that ranked third from 2009 to 2011 ranked 11th in the state from 2006 to 2008. Another off-ramp that ranked fifth in 2009-2011 ranked 114th in the previous three-year period.

Traffic may be a science, but there's plenty of guesswork, too.

"A crash is not a formulaic outcome," said Brunell of the state transportation department. "The tricky dynamic is driving behavior, and bad driving can manifest anywhere."

Bonnie Chisholm was in her car at a stoplight on Washington Avenue in January, waiting to turn left onto Allen Avenue. She saw the truck behind her coming fast, but there was nothing she could do to keep him from crashing into the back of her Honda Fit. Luckily, she wasn't hurt. The driver who hit her had been distracted when he ran into her, but the Scarborough woman doesn't blame him. She said she's been guilty of the same thing.

"People have so much on their mind now," she said. "It's cellphones, yes, but it's also just general distraction."


The state's dedicated safety improvement plan has been in place since 1989. Every year, there are anywhere from 15 to 30 projects of varying size selected to receive safety improvement funds. Once improvements are made, the MDOT tracks performance, starting with three years before the improvements and concluding three years after. Since the program was started, safety funds almost always translate to noticeable improvements, officials said.

Maine's roads do appear safer now than 10 years ago. The total number of crashes reported has been declining steadily since 2001, with the exception of a small uptick from 2006 to 2007. There are now fewer than 29,000 each year, down from more than 37,000 a decade ago.

Fatalities have been decreasing as well, from a high of 204 in 2003 to a low of 136 in 2011.

Transportation experts say even though more money helps, it is not the only answer.

"Transportation groups and local communities are doing a good job advocating for more investments, but we need to remember that drivers are a big part of this," said Fuentes of the Maine Better Transportation Association. "Safety improvements don't address driver inattention."

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:


Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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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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