It’s been years since he served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, but David Cole on Tuesday recalled the stretch of Interstate 95 where two major pileups have happened in the past five years as an area crashes were chronic.
Speaking in the immediate aftermath of a 30-car pileup in the northbound lanes near mile marker 174, the Ellsworth city manager said that the roadway’s east-west orientation limits its exposure to sunlight that can melt ice from the road, creating hazardous conditions, for the same reason that homeowners in the northern hemisphere plant gardens on the southern areas of their properties.
The sun is also in line with the road, so sunlight can be blinding in early mornings for northbound drivers, and late afternoons for southbound drivers, he said. The northbound drivers in the morning are actually headed east, straight into the sun, while southbound drivers are headed west into the setting sun in the late afternoon.
“My recollection is, sometimes with that lack of southern exposure, the road doesn’t get the sunlight to dry out like a north-south route does,” said Cole, who served as transportation commissioner from 2003 to 2011. “I remember once asking that question and getting that answer.”
Sunlight, not ice conditions, seemed to be the cause of Tuesday morning’s crash, Department of Transportation spokesman Paul Merrill said.
Next month, the transportation department plans to install a new road-weather monitoring device near the site of Tuesday’s pileup, on the side of I-95 southbound in Etna at mile marker 167. The devices transmit real-time traffic and weather conditions to the department’s state traffic management center in Augusta so transportation officials can respond by changing highway message boards and lowering speed limits. They also relay the information to state police, traffic maintenance crews and public alert systems, Merrill said.
“We can’t do anything about Mother Nature, but we can try to use technology to respond better to each event in real time when this stuff happens,” Merrill said.
Stretches of I-95 in Bangor, Falmouth, Freeport, Richmond, and Sidney will also get new monitors as part of the $250,000 expenditure, Merrill said. The new devices will replace unreliable devices that are about 20 years old, he said.
The stretch of I-95 that includes Carmel — between the road’s exits onto routes 143 in Etna and 69 in Carmel and Newburgh — has been the site of 182 crashes that injured someone since 2003, according to Maine Department of Transportation crash data. Those crashes included four fatal ones.
Just five years ago, in February 2015, a whopping 102 vehicles crashed and another 45 slid off the road or spun out to avoid crashing near mile marker 173. A total of 32 of the 149 people in the vehicles had reportable injuries. A combination of icy conditions and vehicles driving too fast caused the crashes.
In May 2004, seven people died, including three children under age 10, when a rented sport utility vehicle rolled over in the northbound lanes near mile marker 171. Speed was the cause of that crash, according to the Department of Transportation.