After 9/11, the United States took drastic measures to prevent another terrorist attack, or at least make gestures towards this end. We started two wars, completely changed airport security, and drastically expanded the surveillance state. Yet, carnage at the scale of 9/11 occurs on roads month after month in the United States with almost no campaigning to stop it. More than 30,000 individuals lose their lives every year from automobile accidents; almost all of which are entirely preventable. There’s no doubt that efforts to curb drunk driving have reduced these numbers from their staggering highs in the 1970s, but serious injuries and deaths on the road remain a major hazard more than a hundred years after the invention of the automobile.
Car accidents have many causes, but one of the most significant aggravating factors appears to be location. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, “an estimated 19 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. However, rural fatalities accounted for 49 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2015.” Rural automotive travel is largely done on narrow, dual-directional state highways with speed limits of 65 mph or higher. When two vehicles traveling in the opposite direction collide at the speed limit on these types of surfaces, the real impact speed is 130 mph.
On many state highways, lanes going in opposite directions are right next to each other, increasing the chance that a simple mistake or careless drift can cause a collision. On roads with separated traffic, this is less of a problem, as cars would need to cross a medium or physical barrier to collide with a vehicle going in the opposite direction. A Google News search for “fatal crash” shows just how common this type of collision is. A story about a wreck with three fatalities just yesterday in rural Texas included the following detail: “According to the accident report, the Silverado drove across the center stripe into the southbound lane, colliding with the F-150.” Here is a photo of the highway near the site of the crash.
It’s impossible to know what the nature of this accident would have been if U.S. 81 had a median or divider between these two lanes of traffic, but the likelihood of the collision would have gone down significantly. The extra distance between the vehicles could have given one or both of the drivers time to correct their position, or it could have resulted in a single-vehicle incident rather than a multi-vehicle one. Unfortunately, there is no or very little appetite to change the existing setup of these highways. While efforts to improve individual vehicle safety have been successful, thanks to advocates like Ralph Nader, reducing systemic risk through road construction and design has received less attention.
In a country where personal responsibility is seen as the top priority of public policy, it’s no surprise that the focus of road safety is on things like vehicle purchasing decisions and enforcement of drunk driving and speeding laws. Having a safe car, driving within the speed limit, and not driving drunk will keep you safe much of the time, but none of these things will protect you well against a vehicle on a state highway that crosses into your lane of traffic. Having a large truck won’t help either, especially when most other drivers are rocketing down the highway with competitive gross tonnage.
Dividing directions of traffic is good for road safety, as proven by the federal government’s construction of interstate highways, but for several reasons, this design isn’t required by state highways. Cost is likely the biggest reason for this problem, as the financial burden of rural road construction is largely on state governments. In a place like Texas, which doesn’t have a state income tax, saving money on infrastructure is crucial. Constructing a narrow, paved surface with a yellow line dividing the lanes of traffic is more efficient than creating two separate lanes with a median or divider. These roads are also easier to maintain and take up less space. Safety concerns are secondary.