City reckoning with Mill Lane after speeding complaints

Traffic volume, not speeds, might be the problem on shortcut road
By Ethan Andrews | Oct 13, 2016
Photo by: Ethan Andrews City officials say speed limit signs on Mill Lane were removed to suggest a lower limit than the one set by Maine Department of Transportation. Complaints from neighbors of speeding and reckless motorists have prompted police to take a closer look at speeds on local roads.

Belfast — Speeding complaints by residents of Mill Lane sent city officials scrambling over the summer. Several months later, the posted speed limit on the residential road is higher than it was and the city is still searching for solutions to a problem that may be only somewhat unique to that particular route.

Police chief Michael McFadden said he spent time watching traffic on Mill Lane after neighbors complained to the City Council and came away thinking the 25-mph limit was too low. He contacted Maine Department of Transportation and learned that he was partly right.

The road was posted correctly at either end, where curves justify braking to 25 mph, but the long straightaway that makes up the majority of the road had been stripped of the 35-mph signs MDOT said should have been there.

"I don't know where those 35-mph signs went," McFadden said. "I don't know who took them down or under what authority they took them down."

Residents of the road he talked to didn't recall the signs ever being there, he said, which suggested they had been down for a while. The city has since replaced them, and McFadden said he believes in the formula behind the 25- and 35-mph designations.

Maine Department of Transportation establishes speed limits based on actual traffic speeds, along with an assumption that most drivers are careful and competent, and "the normally careful and competent actions of a reasonable person should be considered legal."

MDOT sets local speed limits based on the 85th percentile, or the average speed of 85 percent of drivers. A description of the process on the MDOT website shows how speed relates to crashes. On an upside-down bell curve, the largest numbers of crashes come from very fast and very slow driving. The 85th percentile falls at the lowest point in the curve, meaning statistically it's the safest speed.

It's also a realistic target.

"If we artificially set a speed limit that's slower than it should be," McFadden said, "then what we end up having is a situation where the vast majority of people are speeding, and no amount of influence from the police is going to change that."

McFadden said the same 85th-percentile formula could describe a lot of what police do.

"We don't deal with the majority of people," he said. "We deal with a smaller percentage of people. Perhaps one could argue that we deal with 15 percent of the public."

MDOT has a reputation for sticking with its formula, often to the chagrin of town officials or residents who want speed limits lowered. But the city recently hired a traffic engineer to help determine what, if anything, could be done to direct drivers back toward the official intersection of Swan Lake Avenue and Route 1. The intersection is the busiest in the county, according to MDOT statistics, and Mill Lane cuts the corner.

The road is hardly equipped for the job. As Mill Lane residents told the City Council, there are blind curves and rises tall enough to keep an oncoming truck deceptively out of view. There's also very little in the way of a shoulder.

City Councilor John Arrison, who lives on a private road that connects to Mill Lane, said pedestrians on the road include not only residents of the street but walkers coming from Swan Lake Avenue either as a shortcut to Route 1 or to get to the convenience store at the foot of Mill Lane.

Arrison said his own attempts to gesture to motorists who are speeding often prompt them to hit the gas. "It's very discouraging," he said.

McFadden said a large number of complaints about speeding come from roads similar to Mill Lane that weren't conceived as shortcuts between major arteries but have come to be used that way.

In the bigger picture, he said, the outcry over speeding doesn't jibe with safety statistics. Crashes in Belfast are down 84 percent from five years ago, he said, despite an apparent increase in the number of cars on the roads. Likewise, calls for other kinds of service are up, and public opinion about speed enforcement cuts both ways.

"There's a fine line between doing more and becoming a nuisance," he said. "It's not an easy job. No one claims it is, but we have to find that sweet spot."

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