On May 9, 21-year-old Katherine Waters was walking across Park Street outside of the Orono House of Pizza, heading toward Thriftway when she was suddenly struck by a Cadillac SUV.
The driver who hit Waters said that she “jumped out in front” of his car, and although he tried to slow down, it was already too late. Orono police were at the scene within five minutes of receiving the call, and said it was “lucky” that Waters, although she sustained some head trauma, wasn’t severely injured. The driver, who was from out of state, wasn’t charged because Waters wasn’t in the crosswalk at the time of the crash.
Since January, there have been 82 reported vehicle and vehicle-pedestrian crashes in Orono — with the majority occurring on Park Street and Rangeley Road.
Nineteen crashes have occurred on Park Street alone within the last four months.
Some residents worry that despite the town’s initiative to improve safety in Orono, it’s still not enough to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.
Residents speak out
Bennett Ratledge, 12, frequently rides his bike around downtown Orono, and often encounters close run-ins with cars while riding. Ratledge said within the last month that he “almost got hit” near the Circle K convenience store.
Louise Jolliffe, Youth Services librarian at the Orono Public Library, said that occasionally, “there’ll be all this drama” in the library among students because one of them had a “close call” with a car while walking down from the Orono school campus on Goodridge Drive.
Henry Robertson, an Orono High School student, had one such experience. At 10 years old, he was riding his bike down Pine street when a car failed to stop at a stop sign and almost struck him. Robertson, now 16, said “a car blew through a stop sign so in an attempt to dodge it I cruised into a ditch.”
In 2004, 13-year-old Julia Bradson was struck by a car while crossing Main Street.
Her mother, Roberta, who owns The Store Ampersand, was in the shop when she learned that Julia had been hit. Julia wasn’t seriously injured, but Roberta has not forgotten what happened but she isn’t sure what can be done to improve safety.
“I feel like we’ve done everything we can to keep the town safe,” she said.
Four months into 2019, the crosswalk at the intersection of Main and Mill streets continues to be a looming concern for both pedestrians and town officials.
Laurie Carpenter, director of Orono Public Library, said she avoids crossing there because of the unpredictability of traffic. At that particular intersection, the crossing and traffic lights appear to run on the same schedule. This means that when pedestrians have the right of way according to the crossing light, traffic traveling from Bennoch Road through Main Street also has a green light.
Between 2:30 and 3 p.m., traffic on Main Street becomes highly congested with students filing out of the schools, turning buses, parents and guardians picking up students, and cars passing through.
The Downtown Circulation and Traffic Study, completed in 2017 by the town with the Maine Department of Transportation, revealed that traffic on Main Street near Westwood Drive is at its worst levels between 7 and 8 a.m. and 3 and 4 p.m.
Brendan Pitts and Geoffery Miloer, the crossing guards on Main Street, work only during the times of peak traffic in the area; at any other time, traffic is directed by the intersection lights.
For Pitts, the greatest detriment to safety is drivers not paying attention. He said that without traffic cones to block them, drivers will try to pass around stopped cars ahead — unaware that kids may be crossing.
Pitts, who monitors traffic primarily for elementary students, said that sometimes the kids follow behind him across the street before traffic has completely stopped.
A 2014-2017 study on Main Street conducted by the Maine Department of Transportation revealed that as many as 15,200 cars were traveling on Main Street every day.
Orono police recorded two pedestrian crashes in 2017. That February, a 75-year-old woman was struck by a car while crossing Mill Street. The driver, who was 19 years old at the time, said that glare from the sun obstructed her sight, according to police records.
The following October, another pedestrian was hit on College Avenue. Neither of the reported crashes were fatal.
Making streets safer
Erik DaSilva, chairman of the Active Community Engagement Team for Orono, said that improving the town’s safety isn’t as simple as installing crosswalks in areas with high foot traffic.
“If there’s too many crosswalks, drivers become oblivious,” he said. In addition to heading the ACE Team, DaSilva is also the education program coordinator for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “The funds just are not available” to significantly improve traffic in town, he said.
The major problems — inadequate crosswalks at busy intersections and poorly timed pedestrian crossing signs — have solutions, DaSilva said, but they are often “expensive and idealistic.”
DaSilva said the lights during times of peak traffic bring up another issue.
At the corner of Main and Mill streets, the pedestrian walking sign directs people to cross at the same time as traffic is traveling from Bennoch Road toward Park Street. This means that people crossing at the intersection have to watch for cars themselves; doing the job that the light was intended to do.
DaSilva said that in order to better protect pedestrians and cyclists, motor vehicle drivers “should behave as though they expect to see a walker or cyclist.”
A Park Street Transportation study conducted by the town with funding from a Maine Department of Transportation Planning Partnership Initiative grant shows that more than 500 cars were consistently traveling on Park Street every hour between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m
In 2018, the town completed the installation of a roundabout on Park Street. Along with the Maine Department of Transportation, the town organized construction of the roundabout — a project that was estimated to cost $2.5 million. The new roundabout was intended to improve the flow of traffic at the University of Maine’s entrance.
The Orono and UMaine police departments collectively reported 14 crashes either on or at the entrance of the roundabout. Of the 14 crashes, eight were reportedly caused by an “intersection movement,” crashes caused by drivers colliding with other vehicles entering and exiting the roundabout.
In 2016, before the roundabout was built, there were 26 crashes between Crosby Street and Washburn Drive. The following year, 23 crashes were recorded in that same location.
Dr. Per Garder, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMaine, said the roundabout on Park Street has greatly improved traffic in the area. Garder served as a member on the advisory committee for the Park Street study in 2014.
Garder said the Park Street roundabout makes pedestrian safety better. However, he also said he estimates that the number of people driving on Park Street has risen since the study was conducted in 2014. He credits this to a change in student routines. Many more students live closer to campus and travel to the university multiple times a day.
Traffic flow in Orono could be improved even more with the installation of more roundabouts, although the town can’t afford to build more, Garder said.
Raised curbs and separate cyclist lanes would also improve safety but the idea of introducing separate lanes is too early for Orono, Garder said.
In the Vacationland state, motor vehicle crashes, including crashes involving pedestrians, have been on a steady incline in the past three years.
2017 was the deadliest year for pedestrians since 1994, according to the Maine Department of Transportation. A 2013 report by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that fatal pedestrian car crashes accounted for $24 million in death costs.
Between 2013 and 2017, Penobscot County had the third highest number of pedestrian crashes in all of Maine, trailing behind York with 202 and Cumberland at 445 crashes over that four-year span, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
During that time, 165 pedestrian-related crashes were recorded in Penobscot County, with 12 occurring in Orono.
‘Traffic is pretty bad here’
When a pedestrian is struck by a car, a common response is to report the crash to the police. What’s the procedure when someone could have been hit but wasn’t?
There aren’t any records of these incidents happening unless people report them, according to Orono police Chief Joshua Ewing.
Adopting suggestions from the Park and Main street studies that were conducted in 2014, town officials have proposed their capital improvements plan, which includes improvements to infrastructure that’ll better protect pedestrians and cyclists.
This June, the Town Council is expected to adopt an official budget for the fiscal year 2020 capital improvements plan, according to Assistant Town Manager Belle Ryder.
One of the projected plans includes a “complete reconstruction” of the Main Street sidewalks which is estimated to cost $400,000 over two years, said Rob Yerxa, director of Public Works.
Construction for the major projects, however, such as the sidewalk rebuild, won’t begin for several more years, if the Town Council adopts the budget. But making the downtown and other popular areas safer for pedestrians isn’t as simple as expanding sidewalks on busy streets.
For that reason, Yerxa said the town is considering removing the crosswalk between Main and Mill streets, where the pedestrian signal indicates its safe for people to cross while cars coming from Bennoch Road also have a green light.
Until the infrastructure improvements begin, some local residents are proceeding with caution when walking in Orono.
“The traffic is pretty bad here,” said Louise Jolliffe, who lives in the area.
Students also are at risk despite the town’s attempts to mitigate dangers by providing crossing guards on weekday mornings and afternoons.
Kasey McCue, 16, worries that drivers aren’t paying enough attention when students like her are crossing Main Street. She once watched a driver sit at an intersection, missing a green light because she was on her phone.
“I saw this one girl [she] was texting … I don’t think she even saw the light.”