BAR HARBOR — In several places on Mount Desert Island, it appears that how fast you can drive legally depends on which way you’re going.
That’s because the posted speed limit for vehicles going in one direction on a stretch of road is different from the posted limit for the opposite direction.
This discrepancy usually occurs when a speed limit sign has been knocked down but never replaced, Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) officials explained.
A good example is on Route 3 between Bar Harbor and Otter Creek.
Heading south, the speed limit is 35 until a sign beside The Tarn says you can go 50. The 50 mph limit is in effect for about a mile and a half, until the 40 mph sign at the bottom of the hill on the approach to the village of Otter Creek.
For traffic heading north out of Otter Creek, a speed limit sign across the road from The Hall says you can go 40 mph. A half-mile up the road, there used to be a 50 mph sign, but it hasn’t been there for several years. So, the posted speed limit for drivers going north doesn’t change from 40 to 50 until just past Otter Cliff Road.
That means that for nearly half a mile along one stretch of road, the posted speed limit is 40 mph for traffic going north and 50 mph for southbound traffic.
A similar situation exists on Eagle Lake Road in Bar Harbor. Drivers coming down the hill from the Park Loop Road overpass toward Kebo Valley Golf Club can go 45 mph until just before Mountain Avenue. But because of a missing sign on the other side of the road, the speed limit for traffic going up the hill is 30.
When such situations exist, how are drivers to know how fast they are legally allowed to go?
“The speed limit is what it should be out there,” regardless of whether a sign is down, said Bruce Matson, a MDOT regional traffic engineer.
But what if someone gets a ticket for driving faster than the last speed limit sign they passed?
“I think possibly a judge could throw the ticket out if there is no posted limit indicating the change,” Matson said.
“I think there’s a potential for that to be problematic,” said Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Police Chief Jim Willis of speed limit enforcement in inadequately marked places.
Both Willis and Matson said they want to know about any missing speed limit signs that motorists are aware of.
“When we notice inconsistencies, we try to get it corrected,” Willis said. “I call the DOT and ask them what the speed limit is supposed to be in a given area.”
Depending on where a speed limit sign is – or is supposed to be – it is up to the municipality, the county or the state to maintain it. But under state law, it is the sole responsibility of the DOT to establish and change speed limits on all public roadways in Maine, including in cities and towns.
To determine a reasonable speed limit on a given section of road, traffic engineers measure drivers’ speed under “free flowing and ideal traffic conditions,” according to the DOT website. The speed at or below which 85 percent of drivers go is the basis for setting the speed limit.
“A properly set speed limit will be within three miles per hour, plus or minus, of this observed speed,” the website states. “The posted speed limit will then be rounded to the nearest five miles per hour.”