Bad Roads Can Kill

In the last decade, the issues of bad vehicles and bad driving have received serious press attention, but another safety factor seems to have received short shrift. Statistics prove bad roads can kill, and the numbers are sobering. Between 1998 and 2001 more than 24,000 Americans died in car crashes in which neither driver error nor impairment were cited as factors. It strongly suggests that roads themselves contributed to the crashes, and that opinion is backed up by a new survey.

Intersections are danger zones, as an analysis of crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by Reader's Digest magazine affirmed. More than one-third of the deaths in which no driver error nor impairment were cited occurred at intersections. Confusing lanes, blind spots, and inadequate signage are factors that contribute to crashes... and deaths.

According to the analysis, when the road was the major contributing factor in a crash, the majority of these crashes occurred at intersections (35 percent) and in dark conditions (31.7 percent). Overall, 44 percent of all crashes occur at intersections. Baby-boomers and older drivers tend to be the most vulnerable in driving on poorly illuminated roads and busy intersections because of their diminished vision and slower reaction times. In fact, by 2020 there will be more than 40 million licensed drivers over the age of 65, if they live that long.

To ensure these problems are addressed and adequate funding is provided by Congress to make America's roads safer, AAA has developed a list of 10 ways the government can improve roads and intersections. "We have a tremendous opportunity to prevent crashes if we look at improving our roads," said Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., AAA national director of traffic safety policy. "Simple changes such as larger signs, protected turn lanes, and better lighting are especially helpful to us as we age, but in fact, these improvements help make the roads safer for people of all ages."

This fall, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the surface transportation funding act, which allocates money for roads, public transportation, as well as traffic safety programs. AAA will focus Congress' attention on its "10 Ways to Make Road Safer," which is based on real-world data from AAA Michigan's intersection safety program called the Road Improvement Demonstration Project as well as guidelines from the Federal Highway Administration.

What are those 10 ways?
  1. SIGNS: Larger, simpler and better-placed signs with reflective materials plus the elimination of confusing and multiple signs.

  2. CROSSWALKS: Reflective pavement markings to increase visibility, countdown signals, longer walk times, easier to reach and larger buttons and plaques to help pedestrians understand signals. Pedestrian refuge islands at large intersections also help.

  3. LEFT-TURN LANES: Dedicated, protected left-turn lanes and "arrow" signals, preferably "off-set." Off-set left-turn lanes improve visibility because the car coming from the opposite direction doesn't block the driver's line of sight.

  4. STOP SIGNS: The minimum size of stop signs, regardless of speed, should be 30 inches. Reflectivity of stop signs must be maintained. STOP AHEAD signs and rumble strips are useful in situations where drivers appear not be noticing the stop signs.

  5. LIGHTING: Better lighting overall. Eyesight begins to worsen at age 40. By age 60, a driver needs three times more light to see as at age 16.

  6. PAVEMENT MARKINGS: Brighter road markings, edge markings and other pavement markings should be reflective so drivers can see curbs, lanes and intersections/crosswalks more easily.

  7. TRAFFIC SIGNALS: Larger traffic signal heads and back plates to provide more contrast. "All red" periods for traffic signals allow for a margin of error.

  8. FREEWAY EXITS & ENTRANCES: Large and clearer signs well in advance of ramps would prevent vehicles from the dangerous mistake of going the wrong way on a highway.

  9. WORK ZONES: Large, bright, well-maintained and carefully placed work zone devices (barrels, cones, etc.) including flashing arrow panels to help drivers prepare for lane closures.

  10. CHANGEABLE MESSAGE SIGNS: Changeable message signs to inform drivers of new road conditions and situations. Messages should be easily understood phrases and abbreviations and not exceed two "panels."

    "We have launched a nationwide initiative called 'Lifelong Safe Mobility' and it will address three important elements of traffic safety: the road, the vehicle, and the driver," said Dinh-Zarr. "Because the crash rates for older drivers will continue to climb because existing road hazards and aging do not mix well, targeting road improvements makes sound safety sense."

    Jack R. Nerad is managing editor of Driving Today and the co-host of the syndicated radio program "America on the Road."