Seeking a safer way: Route 4 drivers say deaths, injuries prove changes needed

Fatalities on Route 4, Jan. 2003 through Sept. 2012


View Rte 4 fatalities in a larger map

AUBURN — Harry Walker stopped on Route 4 to make a left turn onto Lake Shore Drive, bringing home a quart of milk.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Harry Walker shows a picture of himself in the hospital after being rear-ended at the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and Route 4 in Auburn in December 2011. He had been waiting to make the left turn onto Lake Shore Drive, where he lives. "(From behind, the car) hit me and drove me into oncoming traffic, but I don't remember anything," Walker said.


Crashes on Route 4 from the Auburn Shaw's Plaza to the Turner town line

January 2003 through September 2012, by the numbers:

5 fatalities, 32 incapacitating injuries, 637 crashes.

• The most common causes of crashes were failure to yield the right of way (29 percent) and following too closely (26 percent). Driving too fast accounted for 14 percent of crashes.

• 73 percent of crashes occurred during the day, the majority of those in the afternoon.

• Less than 6 percent of drivers were impaired or affected (operating under the influence, sleepy, sick).

• Total crashes for this stretch were down 43 percent in 2011 from the year before. But 2012 has already exceeded 2011 and is on pace to see more crashes than in the past three years.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Tammie Willoughby has almost gotten rear-ended a number of times while stopped to make a left turn onto Lake Shore Drive from Route 4 in Auburn. She recently went door-to-door to get support from her neighbors for changes to Route 4. "This is not something I'm going to give up on," said Willoughby, an emergency room doctor. "People's lives depend on it."

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Memorials to fatal car crashes line Route 4, like this one near the Livermore and Turner town lines.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Memorials to fatal car crashes line Route 4, like this one to Michael Calden near Rosie's Auto Repair in Turner.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Memorials to fatal car crashes line Route 4, like this one to Michael Calden.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Memorials to fatal car crashes line Route 4, like this one to Kristen.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Memorials to fatal car crashes line Route 4, like this one to Laura.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Memorials to fatal car crashes line Route 4, like this one to Kelly Boulay.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up in the hospital with a concussion, eight broken ribs, a broken vertebra, a broken arm, a collapsed lung and bleeding on the brain.

He was 84. Doctors didn't think he'd survive.

"(From behind, the car) hit me and drove me into oncoming traffic, but I don't remember anything," he said.

Amy Liberman stopped on Route 4 to make a left turn onto Lake Shore Drive while driving with her mother, her 5-year-old daughter, Danika DeMayo, and her eldest daughter's boyfriend. They had time before meeting family for dinner, so Liberman decided to drive around Lake Auburn. Danika loved the water.

But before Liberman could make the turn, a pickup truck plowed into the back of her car, propelling her vehicle into the car in front of her — a car that was also trying to turn onto Lake Shore Drive. When Liberman looked back, she found her daughter slumped and dangling from her booster seat with a severe head injury.

A month later, Danika has trouble with memory, swallowing and strength on her right side. Her long-term prognosis is unclear.

"This could affect her for the rest of her life or it could completely clear up," Liberman said. "We won't know for years."

Tammie Willoughby considers herself lucky; she's only had close calls. Whenever she has to turn onto Lake Shore Drive to go home, she watches in her rearview mirror as cars, trucks and tractor-trailers speed toward her on the 55-mph stretch. Do they see she's stopped? Will they stop in time?  

"It's terrifying to watch this in your rearview mirror," Willoughby said. "I've been almost hit. There's maybe been a foot of distance between me and the other car."

She and others have had enough.

More than a dozen years after a Maine Department of Transportation study found Route 4 to be a high-speed, high-volume road with crashes more severe than similar rural highways, residents, city officials, lawmakers and transportation experts are pushing to make the Auburn section safer.

They want lights that alert drivers to turning traffic, a greater police presence and, possibly, a lower speed limit. They dream of a dedicated turning lane.

The MDOT is listening.

"Well, I drive it personally often, as well," said state traffic engineer Bruce Ibarguen. "I know it very, very well."

Turning in a passing lane

Route 4 runs from New Hampshire to Rangeley. It is one of Maine's rural highways, comparable to Routes 126, 196, 201 and 202. 

In western Maine, Route 4 goes through Auburn, Turner, Livermore, Livermore Falls, Jay, Farmington and Wilton. It is often used by commuters and truck drivers who want the fastest, straightest route to their destination.

In 1999, the Maine DOT studied Route 4 from Lake Shore Drive in Auburn to the Livermore Falls town line. It found that between 1995 and 1997, the 24-mile stretch had fewer crashes than expected, but the crashes were severe. Its ratio of fatal crashes to total crashes was nearly four times the state average. Its percentage of injuries was higher than state average and higher than any of the other five similar roads studied. 

The DOT made several recommendations, including greater enforcement of speed limits and drunken-driving laws, installing signs to advise drivers about speed limits during bad weather, installing rumble strips at locations known for crashes caused by drivers falling asleep and installing streetlights at locations known for night crashes.

In 2001, a follow-up study found that stretch had more fatalities than it did during the first study.

The MDOT has made changes. In recent years it's added rumble strips to a section in Turner, alerting drivers when they get too close to the shoulder or drift across the center line. It also tried to slow traffic along the Auburn-Turner line by reducing Route 4 from four lanes to two and adding a turning lane in the middle.  

But Route 4 through outer Auburn has remained largely unchanged. The four-lane road is wide and smooth, with a 55-mph speed limit that allows drivers to get up to near-turnpike speeds. Although there is a painted left-turn arrow on the pavement and a small sign beside the road to alert drivers that traffic often turns left onto Lake Shore Drive, such markers are easily missed by drivers speeding through. And they don't help people turning left onto other driveways and roads.

"Unfortunately, when you want to turn left, you're in the left lane, which tends to be the passing lane at the higher speeds," said Jennifer Williams, transportation director for the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments. "And now you're stopped, waiting for a break in traffic, and people are either going faster than they should or they're not paying attention. It makes a bad combination." 

The MDOT hasn't formally studied the Auburn portion of Route 4 since that follow-up report in 2001. However, it has kept crash numbers. 

The department lists 2,755 crashes on Route 4 in Auburn since 2003, most involving a failure to yield the right of way, drivers following too closely or speeding. More than half were rear-end or sideswipe crashes. An intersection was involved about 30 percent of the time.

Only a small percentage involved a tired driver, a drunk driver or an animal in the road. Most occurred on clear days. 

Between the Shaw's Plaza on Center Street in Auburn and the Turner town line, 637 crashes have occurred since 2003, including five fatal and 32 that resulted in incapacitating injuries.

There were 55 crashes in the area of Lake Shore Drive. Of those, three caused incapacitating injuries.

But those statistics don't tell the whole story.

"What we're not able to see is the near misses," said Auburn Police Chief Phil Crowell. "It's the near misses that concern me."

No one records or tracks crashes narrowly avoided — the times, for example, when a car comes up so fast that a stopped, left-turning driver makes the split-second decision to abandon the left turn and speed ahead to get out of the way. Residents, police and others say that happens frequently.

"It's always been a dangerous corner," said Bethel Shields, who's lived off Lake Shore Drive for 29 years. "When someone's behind me and I see that the other lane is full and they can't pull over and they're coming too fast, I just floor it."

Willoughby has lived off Lake Shore Drive for 13 years and has had near misses of her own. She's also heard neighbors' horror stories, including one person who found himself stopped with a pair of 18-wheelers, side by side, coming at him from behind. 

"It's too bad we can't track near misses like they do in airports and airlines," she said. "Everybody in my neighborhood has got some kind of a scary story."

Walker has lived on Lake Shore Drive for more than 50 years. He usually tries to time it so he doesn't have to stop for the southbound traffic and can swing right in from Route 4. He hasn't had a lot of near misses over the years, but he has seen "all kinds of operations" at the intersection.

"Strange things happen," he said. "I've been stopped before and they passed me on the left. I went to make a left turn and the car turned into the oncoming traffic; he went the wrong way on Lake Shore to get ahead of me. I've seen everything you can think of."

On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2011, one of those "strange things" turned into a crash.

Walker remembers going to a medical appointment and stopping to get milk before heading home. This time, as he drove down Route 4, he couldn't time it to swing onto Lake Shore Drive.

News reports from the time say Walker had stopped his Jeep and was waiting to turn left when he was was rear-ended by a Honda Accord. The collision pushed Walker's Jeep into oncoming traffic, where it collided with another car. Police said the driver of the Honda Accord had turned to check a blind spot. When he turned back around, Walker was in front of him, stopped. 

Photos of the crash show wreckage so mangled that it barely resembles a Jeep.

Walker's injuries could have killed him. For a time, doctors thought he might die.

Walker spent 27 days in the hospital and 55 days in a brace. Although he's mostly recovered, the crash damaged parts of both hands.

Walker's crash got residents talking. Some discussed getting the MDOT to take another look at that section of the road.

Then, on Aug. 6, Liberman tried to take her 5-year-old daughter to Lake Auburn as part of a family fun day. Two cars were in front of her, waiting to turn from Route 4 to Lake Shore Drive. One made it.

"Then all of the sudden we heard this Earth-shattering boom," Liberman said.

Doing something

Like Walker, Liberman's car was hit from behind. She was struck with such force, she said, that her car's computer system showed her vehicle was going 25 mph when it was pushed into the car in front of her.

Danika was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston with severe head trauma. She was quickly swept off to Maine Medical Center in Portland by a LifeFlight helicopter.

"It's been an emotional roller coaster," Liberman said. "One day I'm angry, the next day I'm sad. It's mainly sad. Because I feel like our lives were stolen from us, all because of a distracted driver."

For Willoughby and others, that crash — eight months after Walker's — was the tipping point.

"The last thing I want to have happen is to have one of my neighbors, or anyone for that matter, looking up at me from the trauma table," said Willoughby, an emergency room doctor at CMMC.

Residents started talking to anyone who would listen, including State Rep. Mike Beaulieu, R-Auburn. He, in turn, asked the MDOT to look at the road.

The Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center, which is housed and staffed by AVCOG, held a meeting on the issue a couple of weeks ago. About a dozen people showed up, including residents, city officials and a representative from MDOT. No one defended the area as safe.

"Route 4 is one of these roads that I think has been a long-standing concern, and it kind of goes in waves where it seems more of an issue," said Williams at AVCOG. "It's a combination, from our standpoint, of the volume of traffic, the type of traffic that it sees — it is a major truck route — and the speeds."

With concern mounting, Auburn police recently posted a speed monitor on the side of the road to advise drivers of their speed and to gather data about how fast people go there. It also plans to increase enforcement in the area. 

The DOT will soon install a sign with flashing lights to alert drivers to watch for left-turning traffic.

Those are short-term solutions. Long term, residents would like the speed limit dropped and a turning lane added to the four-lane road. 

Normally, the MDOT conducts a traffic study before making a major change to a road. City officials typically request that study, but Auburn City Manager Clinton Deschene doesn't plan to make that request. He believes the road has been studied enough.

"We don't want a study," he said. "We want an implementation plan."

Ibarguen at MDOT said he expects a study will be done, even if Auburn doesn't make the request. Recommendations would follow.

That process could take at least a year.

Even if substantial changes are made, there's no guarantee they'll improve safety or that drivers or residents will be happy with them.

In 2006, MDOT tried to slow traffic and improve safety along the Auburn-Turner line by reducing Route 4 from four lanes to two and adding a turning lane in the middle. But residents of Hill View Estates, a Turner community for people 55 and older, say the stretch is no safer than it was before.

The problem? With only one lane, drivers get impatient when residents slow to turn right into their community driveway. Some drivers yell or honk. Others speed past, using the new turning lane as a passing lane and nearly clipping the turning cars. 

"It's just plain old scary,"said resident Lynda Belton. "There are times when I don't even want to come home."

But even if the solutions aren't perfect, those around Lake Shore Drive say they have to try. Something has to be done.

"It's not just our neighborhood (that's affected)," Willoughby said. "Anyone who uses Route 4 northbound, there's a potential for a crash."

ltice@sunjournal.com

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Comments

FRANK EARLEY's picture

More studies, more reports, won't solve the problem.

Could you imagine if every time the fire department arrived at the scene of a house fire, they had to wait for someone to complete a study and issue a report, before they could put out the fire? Thats exactly whats happening here. Every time this issue comes up, you get the same comments from the same people, We'll do a study. Folks, a study is to find answers to a problem. We already know what needs to be done. Its as clear as the rear bumper of the car your about to rear end at sixty MPH. Nowadays, a "study" has a totally new meaning, To put something off, for someone else to deal with later. How many more deaths, and near death accidents will it take to just do what is needed?
The types of businesses along outer Turner St. are changing. They used to be landscape companies, construction etc. Now there are more customer oriented businesses, like the hamburger stand. Those types of businesses are bound to multiply as the need for more space is needed.
There is no, single fix that will cure everything. A few common sense ideas would greatly reduce the number of rear end type collisions. A center turning lane to the Turner line. Reducing the speed limit, maybe a rumble strip across the entire north bound lane a quarter mile south of Lake Shore drive. That might startle a few people, it might cause some more to pay attention. Then there's the long sought after cure, people actually paying attention to what their doing, but that will just never happen. One other little tip, when your stopped in traffic to make a left hand turn. Don't turn the wheels until you are actually turning your vehicle. That may sound stupid, but consider whether you want to be pushed into oncoming traffic or a few feet ahead.
Whatever needs to be done, needs to be done now, not six deaths from now.....

Norman Mitchell's picture

Left

A grew up in west turner and used that road all the time I often thought a lower speed limit and a light where needed along that stretch of road look at all the business is along there as well as the church etc etc Auburn has grown further out face it time to lower the speed all the way to Turner and put in a turning lane when I was a kind Auburn started by what was the Fair and Simpsons now the tin tin and read paper progress has move further along time to keep up with it

Andrea Lavertu's picture

Route 4

It would be so much safer if a left turning lane can be put at the location of Lake Shore Drive. Too many lives have either been taken or ruined because of that intersection. How much would it take to do this, seriously? How many more accidents is it going to take?

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