About a half-hour after Belfast city workers erected new four-way stop signs at the intersection of Miller and Church streets Monday morning, two cars crashed there and a woman was injured.
The incident angered some police officers, who said they feel that the Belfast City Council has been too hasty to make changes to downtown traffic patterns and have not given residents or officers enough of a heads up. But councilors said that their decisions this summer to make four-way stops at several intersections have been based in a desire to make driving in the city safer and less confusing, not more so.
“It’s a long way from approving [the four-way stops] to letting the police department know, so we can alert the public,” Sgt. Dan Fitzpatrick said.
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Councilors voted last week to make the intersections at Church and Miller streets and Miller and Congress streets four-way stops. Previously, traffic on Church Street did not need to stop at all, and the Miller and Congress street intersection was a three-way stop, with traffic headed up Miller Street given the right-of-way. The move marked the latest change in a summer of fine-tuning traffic patterns, and followed a vote in June to make short sections of two downtown streets one-way and to make a four-way stop at the intersection of Church and Market streets.
The initial catalyst for the interest in adding four-way stops to the city seemed to be the construction of the new Waldo Judicial Center at Market and Church streets. At the June meeting, councilors discussed the increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic on those streets and their concerns over people driving too fast through the intersection there. When they created the first four-way stop, it seemed to spark an appetite to change other areas they found problematic.
“The purpose of the four-way stop was because people don’t know when to stop and not to stop,” Councilor Mary Mortier said. “That’s why we made it a four-way stop, so everyone can stop, look and listen.”
Still, it’s been a lot for drivers to take in, Fitzpatrick said. The Monday crash occurred when a woman who has driven in the city for a long time headed downtown on Church Street, as she has done many times before. When she noticed the brand-new stop sign at the intersection with Miller Street “at the very last second,” she jammed on her brakes. But there was a car behind her, and that driver rear-ended her vehicle, leaving her complaining of neck and wrist pain.
The speed limit is 25 miles per hour in that section of road, and speed was not a factor, Fitzpatrick said. It was the new stop signs, he said.
“I am not happy about that,” he said.
The officer fired off a Facebook post shortly after clearing the crash scene to alert people to the changes. Within a day, it has been shared 272 times and garnered more than 100 comments, some from other drivers who said they had accidentally blown through the new stop signs themselves.
However, several councilors pushed back against the idea that the police department was caught unaware by the most recent changes. They pointed out that an officer sits in the audience throughout every City Council meeting, and one was present for the discussion last Tuesday that ended in a vote to change the signage.
“I’m sure if we were doing something horrible the police officer would report back,” Councilor Mike Hurley said.
Some councilors cited the July 31 fatal crash at Church and Park streets as a cautionary tale.
In that incident, driver Barbara Forrest, 68, of Lincolnville, had been on Church Street heading toward the city when she came across the Park Street intersection. There, Charlotte Urbano, 78, of Belfast, who was headed uphill on Park Street had stopped at the stop sign, Fitzpatrick said, and didn’t see Forrest’s car approaching. Drivers on Church Street don’t need to stop at that location.
“She nudged Barbara’s vehicle, which caused Barbara to lose control and hit a tree. Speed wasn’t a factor, but visibility was a factor,” the sergeant said.
Pedestrians in the vicinity were able to help Forrest’s passenger, Erla Resnick, 94, of Belfast, get out of the car, but Resnick died in the ambulance that came to the scene.
Councilors suggested that four-way stops could be an improvement for drivers.
“Putting in stop signs gives people more of a feeling of safety,” Councilor Eric Sanders said.
Hurley did acknowledge that change can be hard for drivers who have long been used to something different.
“It is true that without a doubt, people who have been around a long time, they’re driving on an imprinted map, so to speak,” the councilor said. “Take it from me, who came down Miller Street the wrong way and found himself three quarters of the way down a one-way street before it was pointed out to me by my wife.”
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