You’re driving, in your own lane — and another car is coming right at you.

It’s about as bad as it gets on the road. And it’s happening here more often.

Maine is on pace to experience 25 percent more head-on collisions — the deadliest type of car crashes — this year than last. 

The first six months of 2014 saw 500 head-ons and 28 deaths, according to the Public Safety and Transportation departments. The figures don’t include a Rumford couple killed just last week in Brewer.

Officials say they won’t know what’s behind the spike until reconstruction reports come in, but it’s likely a host of reasons.

Texting. Drinking. A moment of looking away.

And in most cases, it didn’t have to happen.

“When it comes to driving, it’s about behavior,” said Pat Moody, manager of driver training at AAA of Northern New England and a member of the Maine Transportation Safety Coalition.

“Almost every crash that we have is avoidable,” he said. “A lot of people in the safety world cringe when they hear ‘accident.'”

Since 2006, the state has spent $300,000 installing centerline rumble strips and another $5.6 million stringing cable median barriers to thwart head-on collisions. The first warns drivers when they’re crossing into the next lane and at risk of a head-on collision, and the second keeps them from barreling over the median into oncoming traffic.

Larry Caron stopped using rooftop signs on his driver education cars 10 years ago after he’d had enough of motorists deciding it would be a kick to steer into his student drivers’ lanes and fake an imminent head-on collision.

“They would do it to be funny,” said Caron, the owner of Roy’s Driver and Rider Education schools. “These are student drivers and they tend to overreact, just turn that wheel like there’s no tomorrow.”

When another driver is coming right at you, he tells students, slam your brakes. Honk your horn.

At the last second, steer to the right — better to nail a tree than another moving car.

‘I was expecting a crash’

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program says nationally, 75 percent of head-on crashes occur on rural roads.

Maine has plenty of those.

For the past 10 years, the state has averaged close to 800 head-on car crashes and 36 deaths from those crashes annually, according to public safety and the MDOT.

Over the past five years, head-ons have accounted for roughly 20 percent of all auto fatalities in Maine.

In the first six months of this year, preliminary numbers show 64 car-crash fatalities, 28 of them head-ons — meaning it’s shot up to nearly half of all auto deaths.

Lauren V. Stewart, director of the Bureau of Highway Safety within the Department of Public Safety, said the state examines all crash data for trends: Speed. Seat-belt use. Road conditions. Was the driver drowsy, drunk, eating, reaching for something, on the phone or otherwise distracted?

“Texting, in particular, has really enjoyed some heightened awareness, and that’s a good thing,” Stewart said. “But really, we need to look at all distractions. Some of these crashes that we’re seeing lately are involving an age group of people where you don’t automatically think ‘texting.'”

Among Maine’s head-on fatalities since 2012, 30 drivers who left their lanes and appear to have caused crashes have been age 30 or younger — and 32 were older than 50.

“For 2014, it is too new for us to really start to work any countermeasures, but we do need to be aware of it. We need to look at each location where it’s happening and try to figure out what was going on there,” she said.

The state is in the midst of pulling together its 2015 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, highlighting trends and asking for federal funding for fixes.

Since 2010, Maine has used money to install 28 miles of cable barriers on Interstates 95, 295 and 395, and Route 1 in Brunswick on medians narrow enough to pose a risk of someone careening into oncoming traffic, said Duane Brunell, an engineer in the MDOT’s Safety Office.

The project costs $200,000 per mile, Brunell said. There’s one last stretch on I-95, 1.9 miles in Saco, to go this year.

Between 2005 and 2009, Maine counted four cross-median interstate fatalities, Brunell said. It hasn’t seen any since.

He knows of two instances of the cables stopping large tractor-trailers from plowing into oncoming traffic.

The MDOT received a letter from a driver after the barriers stopped a hydroplaning car heading north from slamming into their vehicle in the southbound lane:

“The out-of-control vehicle would have T-boned my car’s driver’s side … I was expecting a crash and when it didn’t happen, I was surprised and grateful. I did pull over in the breakdown lane because I was so shook up. I believe the cable line saved my life that morning.”

In addition, the state has added 40 miles of centerline rumble strips to eight high-accident corridors in Maine. Two more projects are planned this year, one for Route 202 in Winthrop.

MDOT data show they can make a huge difference. Route 1 in Woolwich and Route 4 in Turner got the first two centerline rumble strips in the state in 2006. In the six years before the strips, those stretches saw a total of 21 head-on crashes and eight fatalities.

In the six years after, there were 10 crashes, no deaths.

More strips are likely on roads with speed limits of 45 mph or higher and known head-on history, Brunell said.

“If you ask a driver, ‘How tough is it to stay in your own lane?’ It’s a pretty easy, basic task of driving,” he said. “Despite what people may hope, we’re not all that good at multi-tasking. If I was to put it in one word, it would be focus. There’s too much at stake when you’re behind the wheel.”

Dr. David Burke frequently sees broken bones and chest-wall injuries from head-on collisions.

As the trauma medical director for the Level 2 Trauma Center and chief of general surgery and trauma at Eastern Maine Medical Center, he said the severity of injuries often depends on the make and age of the vehicle and whether the person was wearing a seat belt.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has front-crash ratings for vehicles back to 1990. Burke said when he’s shown photos from crashes today with newer cars, the outside might look worse, but because of improved design features — engines that drop down, crumple zones — the people inside fare better than previously.

That is, if they buckle up.

“If you’re not wearing a seat belt, you’ll go straight over the air bag into the windshield,” Burke said. “If you wear it correctly, low and across your hips, that force is distributed across the biggest bones you’ve got in your body. These can be pretty devastating. The good news (if you’re wearing a seat belt) is you’ve now gone from something that wasn’t survivable to all-survivable injuries.”

The ‘what ifs’

In his driver education classes, Caron talks about the dangers of head-on crashes and evasive action.

“So many people might just freeze in that situation and think, ‘I can’t do anything; I’m a sitting duck,’ but no, you can,” he said. (See his tips in the sidebar.)

Caron had a near-miss with a student driver in the past year approaching a bridge in Auburn, with the other car drifting two to three feet over the centerline. He brought his vehicle into the breakdown lane and talked down the panicked student.

His closest call came behind the wheel of a 26,000-pound box truck. Caron used to own a moving company and was driving himself and two employees in Durham four years ago.

“We were coming back on Route 136 and a Volvo came over the centerline — like, completely, not a little bit, full-on, in our lane,” Caron said.

He knew his large truck didn’t have an air bag. Caron locked up the brakes and laid on the horn.

“It didn’t look like he was falling asleep,” Caron said. “He looked down, looked up and then, whoa. The guy, just before impact, was able to swerve. I was just about ready to turn that wheel to the right, that’s why you wait until the very last second to turn off the road, because they may look up.

“Obviously, that’s all we talked about the whole ride home, what would have happened,” he said. “It was so, so scary. We were so big, what would have happened to them? What would have happened to us?”

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How to avoid a head-on collision

Advice from Larry Caron, owner and instructor at Roy’s Driver & Rider Education schools based in Lewiston: 

• Make yourself more visible to other drivers. If your car doesn’t have daytime running lights, drive with headlights on during the day. When buying a car, choose a high-visibility color, such as yellow, mint green or red.

“So many people are like, ‘Well, red is more money on insurance,'” Caron said. “That’s no longer the case.”

• Put the phone away. Even hands-free, it’s still a distraction.

• If you look left, be careful you don’t steer left; it’s a natural habit.

• Beware of “micro-sleep,” a 10-second driving catnap.

“You just kind of click and say, ‘I don’t remember the last 10 seconds of travel,'” Caron said. “We have a lot of people during that micro-sleep, they’ll veer over that centerline.”

If a head-on crash appears imminent:

• Slam on the brakes.

• Hit the horn, quickly.

“If it does look like there’s going to be an impact, you take your hand off the horn for the air bag because you don’t want to be punching yourself in the face,” Caron said.

• Right before impact, swerve to the right, never to the left. There’s a chance that driver might realize his error and swing back into his own lane. Or, if you veer left and miss him, you may clip the car behind him.

It’s also better for you, all things considered.

“Your rate of impact is lower when you hit something like a tree that’s standing still as opposed to a car coming at you in the other direction,” Caron said. “The lesser of the two evils, so to speak.”

Readers share their close calls

“(Last April,) while driving home from work around 5:30 p.m.-ish on the East Wilton Road in Wilton, a small car came at me on a long straightaway with all four wheels completely in my lane.

It was driven by a youngish woman who was very obviously using her cellphone — I could see her using it, texting or dialing — holding it atop her steering wheel as she hurtled toward me.

I leaned on my car’s horn and ditched my car onto the soft shoulder on my side of the road, awaiting the impact. She looked up at the last second and veered sharply back into her lane and in doing so, we barely avoided a head-on collision.

This is not the first time I’ve seen it, just the scariest.”

— Tom D., Wilton

“We were heading home from dinner (on Route 4) in Auburn last fall. A southbound car crossed the centerline just missing us. We had to go in the southbound lane to avoid the collision. The car was headed for the woods. Two tires went in the grass and they were able to bring it back on the road.

(It happened) just after the centerline rumble strips ended. New York plates.”

— Larry Smith, Dixfield

“One evening in June of this year at about 6 p.m., my wife and I were stopped at the light at Main and Court Street in Auburn. I have a habit of looking in both directions before moving my vehicle after the light turns green. I looked left then right and then left again. I did not see any vehicle to my right so I entered Court Street with the intention of turning left.

At that moment, a gray vehicle blew past us going way over the speed limit after running the light. The young lady driving never even looked our way and proceeded up Court as though she was the only one on the road.

If I had pulled out as soon as the light turned green, I am sure my wife of 46 years would have been killed and if I managed to survive, I probably would have wished that I had not. I believe that some people are so involved with their own lives that they are not thinking how one second of inattention can ruin the lives of innocent people and families as well as their own.”

Larry Pelletier, Auburn

“In the winter, you get four to six inches of slush on (Route 119 between South Paris and Hebron), on that hill twice I’ve met people coming down sideways and I’ve gone in the ditch rather than hit them. Nobody pays attention. I’m 70 years old, I’ve never had an accident.

The biggest thing wrong today is inattention, by far.”

— Chuck Primozich, Norway

 


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