DOT frowns on barrels in city crosswalks

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 crosswalks.
The MDOT says the barrels, which towns are using to mark crosswalks, aren't being used properly and could cause accidents.
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 road."
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 said.
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 jurisdiction."
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 regulation.
"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 them.'
"The whole point of traffic control is doing it in a uniform manner."
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 confuse motorists.
"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 danger."
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 trouble sometime."
Stumpfel said the state has misinterpreted Maine's crosswalk law.
"State law does not allow motorists to go through a designated crosswalk when there's a pedestrian waiting to cross," he said.
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 inappropriate use."
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 needed."
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.

Copyright 1996, Ryan R. Robbins.