Down East 2013 ©
Maine drivers barely blink at such highway hazards as flocks of wild turkeys, winter snow flurries, or summer Winnebagos, but there’s nary a one that doesn’t think twice about risking bumper and chrome in Augusta’s notorious rotaries. The twin traffic circles — one at either end of Memorial Bridge spanning the Kennebec River — are infamous statewide, a right-of-way of passage, so to speak, for new drivers and new residents. And for good reason. The rotaries rank one and two on the list of most accident-prone intersections in Maine, a distinction they’ve held for years.
Contrary to popular belief, the rotaries are not leftovers from horse-and-buggy days. They actually date only to the bridge’s construction in the early 1950s. At the time, the traffic circle was the accepted engineering solution for situations where five or more roads radiated from a common intersection. (Happily, it wasn’t one used with frequency in Maine — these days the Augusta rotaries are unique in the state, another reason Mainers are leery of them.)
But those were also the days when Augusta was a sleepy state capital with a relatively tiny amount of commuter traffic. Half a century later, traffic routinely backs up halfway across the bridge during rush hour as cars wait to take their chances in the circular buzz saws.
Despite the high accident numbers, personal injuries at the Augusta rotaries are actually rare. “The majority of accidents are fender benders,” notes Guy Whittington, Augusta’s civil engineer. “People are going slowly anyway, but they tend to look to the side, to watch oncoming traffic, and they end up rear-ending the cars ahead of them.”
Traffic engineers have studied the roundabouts, but short of drastically rebuilding and rerouting several of Augusta’s major thoroughfares, “they’re still the most effective way of handling that amount of traffic,” Whittington asserts. Luckily, the traffic circle has fallen from road-construction grace in the United States. “I don’t think anyone goes out and says, ‘Let’s build a rotary,’” observes Whittington. “At least, not anymore, thank heaven.”
(Published February 2000)