Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why our approach to road safety improvements must change

State and Local Road Reform (formerly the "Coalition for Better Roadway Standards") is a blog created to highlight the importance of improving highway standards, especially traffic control standards.  A major component of this plan is correcting and updating millions of engineering errors that make roads less safe and travel more difficult.  This is different from other highway safety movements in that this is not about changing speed limits, increasing or decreasing DUI laws, removing or installing speed and red light cameras or anything to do with vehicle safety standards.  This is a different movement based on the fact that in much of the country that some states and many local agencies are failing to properly engineer, furnish and maintain traffic safety improvements.  What is worse is that traffic laws are being enforced with these substandard signs and markings meaning that those who make the laws aren't even following the laws themselves in regards to proper engineering standards.

Most people do not realize that something as simple as a speed limit sign with the wrong dimensions and wrong font is not an admissible traffic control device.  Most local courts know this and this is why they continue to be posted like that, because it achieves the results and it costs less than purchasing or using a correct sign.  This means that a knowledgeable person with the right attorney could successfully fight a traffic fine based on the fact that an illegal device was being used.  That's right.  They're illegal.  The MUTCD says so, and it is the law of the land.  So next time you get pulled over for driving 60 in a 45 zone, note the sign.  Is it the right dimensions?  Is the font Series E?  Is the sign clearly visible at night?  If the answer is no to any of these, then you might just have a case.

The first impression of a driver is that the speed limit sign here looks "off".  While the sign says speed limit and has a number, this is not an official traffic control device.  Why?  Because the design is supposed to comply with the Standard Highway Signs manual in the MUTCD.  While the sign here is posted at the correct height and the sign is in the correct dimensions, the use of a non-approved font and incorrect borders means that this sign is not a traffic control device and can be contested in court as such.  Also note the lines on the road, which are faded to near obscurity.  In this instance, a county government maintains this road.

Of course, speed limits aside, what about all the other roadway safety features?  What if a family member drives the speed limit, misses a curve and dies in a serious wreck?  If a sharp curve exists on a roadway that requires maneuvering at least 10 MPH below the posted speed limit then the SIGN MUST BE POSTED and CORRECTLY.  Imagine in this case, one of three scenarios is likely the culprit:

  1. A 90 degree turn that would normally have a 20 MPH advisory on a road posted at 45 MPH is signed with just a curve sign.
    • The driver mistook the curve for a bend in the road they could drive at the speed limit and thus lost control of the car and hit a car head-on
  2. The curve sign that is there is faded out and partially obscured by weeds because it is only 1' off the ground, so it's barely visible at night.
    • The driver was unaware of the hazard and drove straight ahead crashing into a tree at full force
  3. No curve sign is posted at all despite the sudden hairpin turn (not uncommon)
    • Same scenario as #2

In the conditions I described, this was probably written off by the local police as "driver error" instead of a failure by the local government to protect motorists from a sudden hazard that they were unprepared for.  Let's assume this road was a bee-line with a sudden 90 degree turn meaning that there was no driver expectation that a sudden dangerous turn would occur on an otherwise straight road.  In any case, this poses a liability on the agency who installed it incorrectly or failed to install it.  Signs are not the only issue, either.  Does a head on collision happen because the lines are faded on a roadway at night making it difficult for the opposing drivers to tell which side of the road they are on?  Does a mother of four lose her life in a gruesome way because she struck a now-illegal blunt end guardrail that was never updated or installed that way?  What about the people that plunge into a lake or river because guide signs marking a route were missing or non-existent and/or warning signs were not posted of the hidden danger?  Was there ever even a single engineering study on ANY of these roads?  These are the issues that I'm discussing here.  These are the things that are an issue on all road systems but primarily an issue of local agencies who overall lack the resources, adequate state-aid or political will to assure drivers have safe and uniform road systems to travel no matter whether they are in a large metropolitan area or rural area.

Sign rot occurs when a sign becomes so dirty and old that the formerly reflective base separates from the metal and it begins to grow lichens.  At no point should a sign like this ever been allowed to fall into this condition, but this was posted on a major road in this condition and was in place for over 20 years.  Signs have a serviceable life of 7-10 years depending on the materials used and conditions it is exposed to.

While no agency is perfect, vandals may steal or destroy signs and resources are scarce for safety improvements and road maintenance, the problem is when instead of an occasional error or oversight it becomes a systemic problem.  It is one thing if a sign is stolen and an accident occurs with records of that sign being in place vs. the sign not being there at all.  It is another if the local agency is so poor that they cannot afford to post many traffic signs or paint lines on their roads.  Signs get old and need to be replaced, but the issue extends to where the application of safety improvements was never done right to start with.  It is far cheaper to just do it correctly the first time and make gradual changes, improvements and replacements than it is to have to do a complete overhaul because the work by a state or local agency was done on the cheap and incorrectly.

Since these problems are far less common on state-controlled roadways, it highlights the problem with a 19th century form of local government being used as a means of dividing the responsibility for 21st century highways.  With few exceptions, a single city, town, township, county, parish, village or borough clearly is too small to handle this responsibility and in some cases truly does have no real regard for their duties (if the resources are otherwise available), lacks needed equipment or lacks anyone with proper training in how to engineer and maintain a roadway (nearly universal in rural areas).


Some of the issues found on these roads that are extremely common include:

  1. Sporadic instead of consistently laid out curve warning signs
  2. Incorrect fonts and symbols
  3. Extremely worn out signs that are no longer reflective at night and are so weather worn in the daytime that they no longer appear relevant
  4. Improper post height (signs too low)
  5. Improper sign dimensions (signs too small)
  6. Too many signs on one post (too much information)
  7. Non-compliant devices (irrelevant sign clutter as well as #2)
  8. No engineering study ever conducted (signs in place were never planned with the guidance of a PTOE and usually weren't laid out according to MUTCD standards)
  9. Old, substandard and improperly installed guadrails
  10. Extremely faded out lines on the road where they exist
  11. No reflectors for guardrails or other roadway hazards

The list above pretty much defines almost any lower population local jurisdiction in states where local agencies work with anemic budgets, few employees, no engineers (or the county engineer doesn't typically handle traffic control), a poorly trained/supervised sign shop, a negative attitude toward standardization of practices (regulation), a state DOT that avoids any direct involvement with local safety issues and an unwillingness of any combination of local governments or state governments to share services.


In the list above are typical problems encountered on local roadways across many parts of the U.S.  Guardrails often haven't been touched from the day the road was first paved using outdated design.  Often these older, poorly maintained guardrails have heavy rust, rotten anchor blocks and major damage to anchors that never gets replaced.  Blunt-end and boxglove guardrail anchors are also still common and sometimes newly-installed.  Often recycled guardrails are not laid out straight or have anchor bolts that are undersized.  These types of things would be less common if these roads had proper management.

This curve presents an extremely hazardous situation with improper chevrons in the curve (not enough and only one (despite double-posting) in view and a guardrail in the middle of the curve with a blunt-end guadrail that appears to be of recent install.  Located in the middle of the curve like this, an error in driving the curve or slippery conditions could cause someone to crash into that guardrail in a way that it slices right through the car on impact.  Also note the poor condition of lines on the road.


Bridge rails on old bridges are crumbling without any repairs made to the damaged or deteriorated railing.  Often the local agency lacks any budget for major repairs and can't afford to contract with the state to bring in equipment and forms to rebuild damaged railing.  Often when railing is repaired, it is mismatched with the original railing creating an unsightly appearance on the structure itself.  Unless bridge replacement within 5 years is imminent and already fully funded, this is not an acceptable approach.

Note the atrocious condition of this bridge rail.  While the railing itself no longer meets federal guidelines, that is not a reason it cannot at least be repaired.  A replacement of the anchor cap and broken railing where it is damaged would still be safer than doing nothing at all.


  Road striping is infrequently maintained on most local roads, especially in rural areas, and often completely faded out so that the roadway is completely dark at night.  Obviously the MUTCD does allow roads to omit traffic striping if the roadway is considered low volume, but if the lines are already there it is the public agency's responsibility to either remove them completely or maintain them.  Especially egregious are the lack of stop lines found at intersections controlled by stop signs.


Traffic control problems are not even an issue of population or funding, because it has very much to do with statewide policy and local policy.  It also depends on who is in charge and how much importance they give it.  In some cases better jobs are done in cities of 15,000 than counties of 100,000 or more and likewise a county of 20,000 residents may do a better job than a county of 100,000 residents.  In any case, a local agency that either fails to understand the issue or refuses to adequately invest is why it is not so much of a rural/urban issue as it is a poorly understood issue.  Regardless, public health and safety is at risk when roadway safety features are not correctly designed or maintained, and not enough is being done to change that.

Much of this also has to do with a culture of increasing local control, lack of funding or interest on a state level and decreasing state and federal oversight.  Thus, government responsibility is increasingly fragmented making the needed engineering checks and balances too costly to put into place.  If a county or city cannot afford a traffic engineer, then they definitely are not going to hire one, period.  The problem is when they are unable to meet those demands, they currently lack any option to contract out that responsibility to an agency who is equipped to do it.  Currently that only option is the state government (which in most states rather proudly informs that they no longer offer that service), but the hope in the future is that the option will also be adjacent cities and counties: especially larger population ones.  The later option is, of course, the development of regional cooperatives.  You can't just have a sign replacement project or road striping project and call it done.  While that may initially help, road maintenance is an active task that needs consistent funding, proper oversight and regular review.  You have to either change the agency from within (if the resources are actually there) or centralize the responsibility under qualified and properly overseen regional or state agencies so that they are responsible in their actions and do it right all the time and every time.

One reason that perhaps so many local agencies have gotten away with doing an inadequate job can be blamed on the states.  The states themselves may be using far outdated traffic engineering on their own roads simply replacing signs that were originally determined in traffic studies from the 60's and 70's.  They just assume that the local governments will pay for the traffic studies on their own and that state projects from the 60's and 70's are adequate.  There are still places on state maintained roads as well where unsafe guardrails are in place that have not been updated, lines are faded or signs are old and faded.  It is no surprise then that they are not willing to pursue corrective measures as well on county roads such as installing signs, fixing guardrails and requiring the removal of unsafe roadway features when they are negligent in their own duties.  Penalties for non-compliance are also rare.  Withholding of funds or seizing control of a road network from a local agency that is unwilling or unable to meet proper standards almost never happens anymore.


It should also be noted that when a state or any other larger government entity (such as a county) devolves any responsibility to a smaller level of government, it doesn't just lower the standards on the devolved roads: it also weakens the state or county who are less capable of doing a good job due to loss of employees, funds and responsibility.  The state is less likely to inspect and more likely to hire contractors to do what used to be an in-house job.  The county is likely to lay off workers and cut funds, including key employee positions that managed this responsibility.  The city, town or township is unlikely to have the resources to maintain what either the state or county had before unless they have annexed enough land that their tax base is better than what the larger agency once had.  

This is not entirely an attack on local government.  It is well known that local government can often do many things better than a larger agency, and it should be noted that many local governments do an excellent job without being forced to.  Obviously response time is quicker and the demands are lower allowing a greater focus on local matters.  However, in terms of road maintenance responsibility local agencies have still proven unreliable and inconsistent in what they deem are more complicated and less essential duties of road maintenance often using their geographic isolation and limited funds as an excuse for ignoring the greater problem.  In some cases, it's understandable.  In others, they really have no excuse.  State and Local Road Reform intends to one day put an end to this nonsense either way.  The goal is to change the discussion from a culture of laissez-faire local control and devolution to a goal of right-sizing and re-appropriating various road responsibilities where it can be the most effective at the least overhead cost.  This movement presents a clear and detailed plan on how to fix this problem for good with ideas, examples of shoddy practices, related articles and documents that back up the claims of this site.  Examples will be posted on the blog of poor engineering practice across the United States taken from photos and street view images explaining the problem and what needs to be done about it.  It is hoped that different posts and photos taken in the field will educate the public on what is wrong and will lead to awareness by local, state and federal leaders that something needs to be done and that it needs to be done right.

1 comment:

  1. The quality of roads in Montgomery County MD vs Prince George's County MD sites how drastically differently similarly wealthy, sized, and populated jusisdictiions can be.