CARMEL, Maine — Most drivers in the area were traveling at least 10 mph over the posted 45-mph speed limit around the time of a massive pileup on Interstate 95 last week, according to data collected by the Maine Department of Transportation.
The flashing hazardous-weather speed limit signs along the federal highway also are equipped to record the speed and number of passing vehicles. Data provided by the Maine DOT at the request of the Bangor Daily News were collected from the three signs closest to the Feb. 25 crash, which involved at least 75 vehicles in the northbound lanes between miles 173 and 170.
Data from the signs at miles 159 northbound, 173 southbound and 156 southbound showed most drivers ignored the warning.
“It was way too fast,” Ted Talbot, Maine DOT spokesman, said of the average speed recorded by the signs. “It’s not surprising, but it’s a concern.”
The sign at Mile 159 northbound, 14 miles south of where the pileup began, showed every vehicle in the hour leading up to the 7:30 a.m. crash exceeded the reduced speed limit. The 333 drivers heading north were driving an average 62 mph, with the lowest recorded speed at 51 mph and the highest at 73 mph. The speed limit for that stretch of I-95 was increased in 2014 to 70 mph during normal driving conditions.
The sign nearest the pileup, near mile 173 of the southbound lanes, shows that the 219 drivers who had passed in the hour leading up to the crash were going an average of 55 mph — 10 mph over the posted speed — with the slowest recorded at 35 mph and the fastest at 72 mph.
The sign at 156 southbound recorded 266 vehicles at an average speed of 60 mph, with 45 mph as the lowest recorded speed and 73 mph as the highest.
The flashing signs are equipped with cameras to monitor road conditions but they are not capable of recording vehicle license plates for privacy reasons, Talbot said. The image taken from the camera at mile marker 173 southbound near the time of the pileup shows the driving lane is clear, he said.
The day after the crash, under sunny skies, the roadway was clear near the crash scene. Drivers going by the same three data collection signs about 7:30 a.m. Feb. 26 averaged just above the speed limit, at around 72 or 73 mph, heading in both directions, DOT data state.
Lt. Sean Hashey, Maine State Police Troop E commander, said interviews of those involved in the crash that sent at least 17 people to Bangor hospitals confirmed that most were driving too fast for the conditions.
“We do know that excessive speed did play a role in this,” Hashey said Tuesday.
Following too closely, snowy weather conditions and limited visibility also contributed to the worst Maine highway crash in recent history, he said.
Hashey, who said the state police investigation continues, went on to say the initial estimate that 75 vehicles were involved will be exceeded by the time all the reports are tallied.
“I think we were conservative,” said Hashey, who declined to comment on how many more vehicles were involved. “Looking at the entire event over the 3-mile stretch, it will likely be higher.”
Road not yet treated
The flashing signs in the vicinity of the crash were activated by the Plymouth plow truck crew supervisor at 4:53 a.m., according to a report compiled by the DOT. The road where the crash occurred had not yet been treated with the salt-based products used to melt snow and ice because of the blowing snow conditions.
A woman called 911 at 7:34 a.m. to say she had skidded off the highway near mile marker 173 northbound. While on the phone with a dispatcher, she said other drivers, including a tractor-trailer, were crashing as they tried to avoid her. The massive pileup closed both northbound lanes for about four hours.
Depending on temperatures, the DOT uses salt, a mixture of salt and water known as brine and a substance containing organic compounds and magnesium chloride known as Ice B’Gone to treat roads, according to Dale Doughty, director of maintenance and operations.
When the plowing crew supervisor called the MaineDOT radio room at 4:53 a.m. to have the variable speed signs turned on, the supervisor recorded that there was snow on the roadway.
“Light snow is falling, the air temperature is 8-degrees [Fahrenheit], and the pavement temperature is 12-degrees [Fahrenheit],” the report shows.
At 5:30 a.m., plow trucks left Plymouth heading north to scrape both lanes of the highway, then turned around and headed south when they got to the Carmel/Winterport exit, which is about a mile north of the initial crash site.
“None of the trucks are applying salt on the interstate travel lanes at this time (which is standard procedure for dry and blowing conditions),” the MaineDOT report states. “Salt is applied to the ramps at 200 pounds per lane mile.”
The two state plow trucks started another trip heading north from Plymouth just before the crash, with one leaving about 7 a.m. and the other leaving around 7:15 a.m.
At about 7:20 a.m. the “crew supervisor notes conditions becoming slippery and tells crews to start applying salt to the mainline,” the report states.
Ten minutes later, the first of the state plow trucks came upon the multivehicle accident.
Out of the nearly 29,000 crashes that occur in Maine each year, around 5,400 happen on wintry road surfaces such as snow, slush and ice, with an average of three fatalities, according to the Maine Transportation Safety Coalition’s 2014 Maine Highway Safety Facts.
“Most fatalities do not occur on major or interstate highways,” the report states.
Speed, however, is a huge factor in bad-weather crashes and fatalities in Maine.
There are an average of 4,600 crashes each year “that involve crashes that result from speed in excess of posted speed limits or that occur when road or weather conditions dictate a lower, prudent speed,” the DOT report for 2014 states. Police crash reports cite driver “unsafe speed” three times as often when wintry road conditions exist, it states.
Speed-related crashes account for 19 percent of all crashes and 42 percent of fatalities. In an effort to decrease the numbers, the Maine State Police in 2013 issued in excess of 24,000 speeding tickets, according to the Maine 2014 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which also stressed education.
“The biggest concern with excessive speed is that it can lead to other driver errors and serious injuries,” the DOT report states.
The DOT is using the data collected from last week’s pileup to see if any additional steps could have been taken to address the slippery roads for future events, Talbot said.