ELLSWORTH — First there was the April 27 head-on collision near Sunrise Glass, a crash that fatally injured one man; then came June 11 when a Franklin man died on MacGowan Hill during a rainy afternoon. Finally, there was July 25, when traffic was diverted for several hours around the scene of another deadly crash.
That’s three fatal accidents that have happened along Route 1A in Ellsworth in 2019. In the five years prior, there was only one fatal accident on that stretch of road, which is undoubtedly one of the busiest in Hancock County.
It averages more than 10,000 vehicles per day traveling back and forth between Bangor and Ellsworth, as well as heading toward Mount Desert Island and the coast in the summer months.
“I can say without hesitation that this year has been particularly bad year for fatal crashes,” said Ellsworth Police Chief Glenn Moshier. “But the overall accident numbers for that stretch of road have been pretty consistent in terms of numbers.”
With such an unusually high number of fatal crashes within just months of each other, the Ellsworth Police Department has increased its presence on Route 1A, of which the department covers an 11-mile stretch.
“Our department has always had a heavy presence for speed enforcement on 1A; that’s always been a full component of what we do,” Moshier said. “So certainly having these last three fatal crashes, it’s coming back into priority for us that we have a really strong presence out there.”
According to data from the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT), there were 393 accidents that caused injuries and three fatals (only one on Route 1A) in Ellsworth from 2014 to 2018.
For Hancock County as a whole, there were 1,812 injury accidents and 37 fatals during that period. In 2019 to date, there have been 54 accidents causing injury and three fatal crashes in Ellsworth and 198 injury accidents and nine fatalities for Hancock County overall, meaning the total number of accidents this year is comparable to the average annual number of accidents over the past five years.
As for the Bangor Road in Ellsworth, “It’s a busy road, but the overall crash rate is below average for similar roads across the state,” said Bruce Mattson, traffic engineer with the DOT’s Region 4, which covers Route 1A. “It’s well designed. Wide shoulders, gentle curves, climbing lanes, but it does carry a lot of traffic and there’s always going to be elements of speed and driver behavior involved.”
Route 1A is not currently designated as a high crash location by the DOT.
High crash locations are those that have eight or more traffic crashes over a three-year period and a “critical rate factor” greater than 1 in that same timeframe. The critical rate factor is calculated based on the accident frequency compared to similar roads.
According to Mattson, Route 1A’s critical rate factor from 2016 to 2018 was .76, making it safer on average than comparable stretches of road around the state, despite the high volume of traffic.
“A critical rate factor of 1 essentially means it’s equal to similar locations, roads with similar conditions around the state. So if it’s greater than 1, that basically says it’s a greater risk of danger,” Mattson said. “Now, if a fatal accident happens, or a serious injury happens, that is weighted more heavily.”
This year’s fatal accidents will be factored into future calculations.
“There’s a lot of geometry to 1A, with the Dedham hills, lots of traffic from I-395, but I think it’s a well-built road, and like most things, it comes down to driver behavior,” said Ellsworth City Manager David Cole, who also served as the DOT commissioner under former Governor John Baldacci. “It’s a combination of education, engineering and enforcement.”
According to the DOT, signs advising safe driving practices are expected to go up in Dedham later this year. On Sept. 19, Maine’s distracted driving law, banning all use of phones and handheld devices while driving, will go into effect. Ongoing repairs to the road, which have involved repaving large segments, also are nearing completion.
“At one time we had a centerline rumble strip all the way from Holden to Ellsworth,” Mattson said, noting that two of the recent crashes were in areas where the rumble strips had been removed during road work.
“The crossovers occurred in places like that,” Mattson said. “And those [rumble strips] are a very effective countermeasure against head-on collisions.”
According to the DOT, those rumble strips are expected to be installed once again beginning later this year.
“We know that corridor gets congested, especially in the summer, and we’re always looking for ways to improve safety,” said DOT spokesman Paul Merrill. “We encourage people to slow down, pay attention, and don’t drive impaired.”