Easing gridlock

Recent traffic accidents in Hancock County illustrate how vulnerable motorists, both residents and visitors, are to roads being cut off while rescues are underway or investigations conducted. It’s a fact of life in Down East Maine that there often is only one route to islands or many peninsulas. When that route gets blocked, potentially thousands of people are inconvenienced. Groceries spoil in hot cars, people are late for work or miss medical appointments, children are not picked up from daycare on time, and family activities are disrupted.

According to the Maine Department of Transportation, motorists in Hancock County in 2014 travelled some 695 million miles. The county averages about 11,000 motor vehicle accidents a year. Over the last five years, the number has increased steadily as traffic volume has increased.

About 27 percent of accidents involve personal injury. Fortunately, only .45 percent result in a fatality.

Just last week in Bar Harbor, Route 3 was blocked for seven hours while a fatal accident was investigated. Last Friday, Route 3 in Trenton was blocked in both directions for more than two hours due to a multi-vehicle wreck.

In the aftermath of any crash, police set about investigating, EMS personnel tend to the wounded, and firefighters control any fire danger. There is little time to contemplate how best to direct traffic or set up well-marked detours. Without question, there are precious few people in existing agencies that can be spared to do those tasks.

Some busy fire departments around the country are creating traffic control assistant positions to handle those duties. In that vein, it might make sense to initiate a new division of volunteer emergency services here to handle traffic and set up detours. Fire departments are logical places to start, but they are often short of staff.

The Hancock County Emergency Management Agency frequently helps in major emergencies, mostly by putting out public notices. But perhaps the time has come for that entity to become involved in providing real-time, on-the-ground services to the public or, at the very least, sponsor training and grant application support as well as coordination of existing resources.

Many people may be unable to run into a burning building or provide first aid, but they may be willing to put on a safety vest and help direct traffic. While training in safety and proper techniques should be mandatory, traffic control volunteers would not require the burdensome certification required for firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

Traffic volunteers also could pre-plan various scenarios to speed up response time.

Further, in such traffic jams, people turn first to their cell phones. Some entity should be responsible for “one-stop” public notification using websites and social media to share information about location, expected delays, possible detours, and just as important, noting when regular flow resumes.

With the extraordinary traffic volumes, especially the Mount Desert Island area in summer, any accident on a busy road is bound to create gridlock, even were one lane of traffic still open. This area has adequate resources available to assist those immediately involved in a major collision. That always should be the first priority. But so far, no one is directly responsible for doing everything possible to minimize the immediate impact on the thousands of other people involved in the aftermath. That needs to change.

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