Bangor officials say devices save pedestrians from speeding cars
By Ryan Robbins
Special to the NEWS
The Maine Department of Transportation has told cities and
towns across the state to pull their orange barrels out of their
The MDOT says the barrels, which towns are using to mark
crosswalks, aren't being used properly and could cause
Skowhegan and Orono have decided to get rid of their barrels,
but Bangor has decided to ignore MDOT's advice.
Use of the barrels to mark crosswalks has increased
dramatically in the last year or so, according to MDOT Maine
Local Roads Center Director Pete Coughlan.
"These things are popping up all over the place because
people see it in one town and think that it's working and it's
doing a good job," Coughlan said.
Coughlan told cities and towns in the Roads Center's summer
newsletter that "the use of orange barrels or cones on the center
line or in a crosswalk to slow motorists down is NOT a
recommended practice, especially when a metal sign (or two),
sandbags, or even cinder blocks are placed on the device."
The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, issued by the
Federal Highway Administration, says barrels are to be used to
channel traffic in work zones. The manual is the bible for
traffic engineers across the country and is consistent with
traffic standards worldwide.
Coughlan said he isn't aware of any studies that have looked
at whether the barrels actually cut down on incidents between
pedestrians and motorists. Regardless, he said, the MUTCD doesn't
allow barrels to be placed in roads without construction.
Poor lighting and poor weather conditions can make it
difficult for drivers to see the barrels, Coughlan said. The
barrels are supposed to be used in series to be more visible. The
FHWA recommends that barrels left out at night be lit with
flashers that can be attached to the top of the barrels.
The MUTCD also requires advance warning signs to alert
motorists of upcoming obstacles in the road.
"I've got a couple of pictures right here in the file, with
the barrels in one lane, the blocks in the other and sandbags all
over the place," Coughlan said. "Some of those I'm sure are being
hit on purpose, but others are simply being hit because it's
something one does not expect to have in the middle of the
The town of Orono recently decided to get rid of its barrels
because they were getting hit too much.
"They were damaged so badly that we couldn't stand them up
properly," said Orono Police Department Capt. Linwood Green.
Orono had used barrels in crosswalks for about three years, he
None of the accidents involving the barrels was serious, he
said, but people rarely reported the accidents.
Green wouldn't say whether he thought the barrels were
effective in cutting down on pedestrian accidents in Orono. He
said bicycle and car accidents are more common in the town.
Green said Orono is looking into getting more effective and
traditional warning devices, such as flashing lights, thicker
crosswalks and more warning signs -- options MDOT recommends
instead of barrels.
Coughlan said cities and towns could be liable if a
pedestrian were to be hit by a barrel struck by a car or if a
barrel were to damage a car.
Bangor officials don't share MDOT's concerns.
Bangor City Solicitor Erik Stumpfel said Bangor isn't
obligated to follow the MUTCD even though barrels on Main, State
and Hammond streets are on federal- and state-aid highways.
"It seems to me that the scheme of things is that whoever is
legally responsible for maintaining the road also controls
placement of signs on the road," he said.
However, the MUTCD says it "presents traffic control device
standards for all streets and highways open to public travel
regardless of type or class or governmental agency having
Federal law requires that the manual to be followed on all
federal-aid highways and that all states be in "substantial
conformance" with the manual.
Stumpfel said he wasn't aware of any such federal
"Substantial conformance" isn't defined in the MUTCD or in
any federal regulations.
Coughlan stressed the Roads Center doesn't want to get into
an argument with the cities and towns it serves. He said all MDOT
wants to do is help them prevent accidents and lawsuits.
"What (Stumpfel) is essentially saying here is, 'Let's go out
and put out barrels," Coughlan said. "'Let's go out and put up
purple stop signs. Let's go out and use pink polka dot work-zone
signs because they're different and they stand out, people notice
"The whole point of traffic control is doing it in a uniform
At the Bangor Municipal Operations Committee's Sept. 3
meeting, Stumpfel said, "The legal liability issue should not be
in the way of whether (the barrels) are a good idea or not."
Later, Stumpfel said cities and towns face limited liability
when they make an effort to protect the public's welfare.
"People in government positions somehow assume that they are
legally liable when they are not," Stumpfel said. "And that
assumption inhibits them from doing what is necessary to protect
the public interest. I feel strongly about governments getting
too nervous about potential liabilities that aren't there."
At the meeting, City Manager Edward Barrett said he thinks
the barrels have made a tremendous difference in regulating
traffic at crosswalks.
Bangor Public Works Director Arthur Stockus told the
committee the barrels are the wrong color. The barrels are sold
in orange, which designates work areas. Stockus told the
committee yellow would be more appropriate because it's reserved
for warning motorists.
The committee agreed with Stockus and voted to change the
color of the barrels to yellow.
Bangor police Chief Randy Harriman addressed concerns about
the barrels causing accidents.
"We've had some experiences with barrels getting hit," he
said. "We have not had one fly yet. They go down and they slide
under the vehicle."
Coughlan also said the signs atop the barrels that tell
motorists they have to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks can
"Some people are actually stopping, whether there's
pedestrians or not, because all they see is that word 'stop,'"
Coughlan said. "Now you're creating the possibility of sudden
stops and rear-end collisions."
An even more dangerous implication of the barrels' use is
they may give pedestrians a false sense of security.
Maine law says motorists must stop "when the pedestrian is on
the same half of the way or approaching so closely as to be in
But, Coughlan said, pedestrians "are taking the chance and
they're entering the crosswalk and zipping right through with the
attitude, 'Hey, all you cars, you'd better stop for me.' That
increased sense of security by pedestrians may get them in
Stumpfel said the state has misinterpreted Maine's crosswalk
"State law does not allow motorists to go through a
designated crosswalk when there's a pedestrian waiting to cross,"
MDOT is also concerned the metal signs atop the barrels might
seriously injure people in an accident. The Bangor Municipal
Operations Committee voted to remove the signs.
Officials at the meeting cited the barrels' portability and
low cost as factors in the city's decision to use the barrels. A
barrel can cost from $40 to $100 while a yellow warning light can
cost from $5,000 to $10,000.
Feedback for the Roads Center's article hasn't been
overwhelming. Coughlan said Bangor is the only city so far to
respond in writing to MDOT. However, Augusta officials changed
their minds about putting barrels out, he said. And Skowhegan,
which had been using barrels, decided to heed MDOT's advice and
pull its barrels.
Coughlan said most complaints about the barrels have come
from people involved in public works.
At Bangor's committee meeting, Bangor City Engineer James
Ring said, "I hate the things, quite frankly. I think they're an
City Councilor Don Soucy said, "What's wrong with it if it's
accomplishing what we want it to do?"
The answer may lie in the MUTCD: "A standard device used
where it is not appropriate is as objectionable as a non-standard
device; in fact, this may be worse, in that such misuse may
result in disrespect at those locations where the device is
Coughlan said that while MDOT doesn't approve of barrels
being used in roads without construction, it has taken a hands-
off approach for the most part. But some of the department's
traffic engineers have asked towns to remove the barrels from
state- and federal-aid highways. Under Maine law, all signs and
traffic control devices placed on state- and federal-aid roads
are subject to MDOT's approval.
"My main point in this whole issue is that, for the sake of
uniformity and public safety, whether you're the DOT or you're a
little town or somewhere in between, you've got to follow the
uniform traffic control standards, which are common all across
the country," Coughlan said.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Oct. 16, 1996, edition of the Bangor Daily News.