- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006


A hornet sting made trucker Christopher Adams lose control of his semitrailer at 70 mph. Three cables may have saved his life.

A steel-cable barrier that Missouri had installed a few weeks earlier snagged his truck in the median of Interstate 44, keeping it from barreling into oncoming vehicles or from ricocheting back into traffic.

“If the cables wouldn’t have been there, I would have gone clear across the interstate,” said Mr. Adams, 58, of Payette, Idaho. “No one got hurt. That was amazing.”

To improve traffic safety without busting their budgets, states are installing the cable barriers, painting distance dots on roads to discourage tailgating and placing stop signs that light up like Christmas trees at dangerous intersections.

North Carolina uses poles called channelizers that protrude from center lines to keep motorists from sneaking through gates at railroad crossings. Naperville, Ill., has installed flashing beacons on the back of school-zone signs to remind motorists of the lower speed limit when they look in their rearview mirrors. In Milwaukee, a series of white chevrons painted on highways give motorists the illusion of going faster to get them to slow down as they approach exit ramps.

“I think there is more of an emphasis on low-cost measures simply because budget situations in state and local governments are very tight,” said Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The cost of steel, cement, asphalt and diesel fuel is up. And with traffic on the rise, states are spending many of their transportation dollars on building new roads and expanding existing ones. That leaves limited funds for safety improvements and is forcing engineers to look for lower-cost solutions.

Last year, the number of traffic deaths nationwide was the most in a single year since 1990, and the overall fatality rate — deaths per 100 million miles traveled — increased for the first time in 20 years.

Ohio has spent $5.5 million since 2003 to install 83 miles of cable barriers and is working on 30 miles of barriers at a cost of $2.2 million.

Ohio had 18 fatal median-crossover crashes in both 2004 and 2005, but no one died in crashes where there were cables.

Missouri has cable on more than 200 miles of interstate highways, about 20 percent of the state’s total. Only one of every 20 vehicles that have crashed into the cables has gone through the median and into the lanes of approaching traffic.

“It’s as successful as any safety device we have ever used,” Brian Chandler, traffic-safety engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. “It actually catches the car and keeps it in the median.”

Mr. Adams, who was hauling office furniture near Springfield in southwest Missouri, walked away from his crash with the sting in his forehead and torn stitches from a previous cut on his hand.

The cable barriers also have become popular because of their relatively low cost.

According to a 2003 study conducted by the Washington state Transportation Department, cable cost about $44,000 per mile to install, compared with $72,000 per mile for a guardrail and as much as $419,000 per mile for a concrete barrier.

The railroad-crossing barriers cost about $10,000 per location; the painted chevrons, $40,000 per location.

Pennsylvania has embraced rumble strips. The state has cut more than 1,000 miles worth of divots into the center and edge lines of pavement at a cost of about $5,300 a mile. Head-on traffic fatalities in 2005 were down 35 percent in the areas with centerline rumble strips when compared with average annual deaths between 1999 and 2003.

“It’s really a low-cost investment,” said Steve Chiszmar, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “It basically vibrates the car. It snaps people to attention.”

Mr. Retting, at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said distance dots and chevrons probably are not that effective in reducing crashes because they won’t deter aggressive driving, which is the core of the problem.

“There is a potential for mild effects, but we can’t look to these kind of pavement markings to solve the problems,” he said. “But because the cost is so low, there is not much harm in putting them down.”

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