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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Highway Booby Traps

A New York City television repairman, named Joseph Linko, takes photographs of highway engineering hazards as a hobby. For five years, this public citizen has shown these pictures to members of Congress, highway officials, and safety groups hoping his campaign will result in safer guard rails and sign posts. His effort needs broad public support to really pay off.
Here are examples from Linko’s photo album:
– guard rail installations which guide the errant vehicle into a bridge abutment or which spear the vehicle because their ends are not flared or buried underground.
– road-side barriers such as sign posts with 8-inch steel beams, light poles and trees which expose vehicles to deadly immovable barriers. These beams and poles could be designed to break away on impact and the trees should be removed from these highways.
– highway dividers and guard rails which behave like brick walls when hit instead of guiding vehicles back on course.
Improvements, like breakaway sign posts, are at last being installed on some new highways. Motorists sheer off these breakaway signs, giving them more distance to slow down without personal injury or serious property damage. Human beings must come before highway property.
The tragedy of highway booby traps is that the engineering answers were known years ago. It would have cost less to have avoided these hazards when the highways were first built. Millions of dollars were wasted on unnecessary signs and guard rails which made hazards worse, and tree plantings too close to the road. Energy-absorbing material, just now appearing on highways, could have been placed on abutments or at high accident locations such as turnoffs on the interstate highways.
In the world of highway builders and state and federal highway officials, the effort has been to build more and more highways and to ignore the less costly refinements of advancing highway engineering safety. The bureaucrats were too complacent over the divided limited access highway as a promoter of safety to recognize how much more safe these highways could have been. They need to listen to men like Linko, Dr. Horace Campbell of Denver, Henry Smith of New Jersey and other safety advocates who have been trying to get improvements for years.
US Department of Transportation officials are beginning to see the need for requiring safer highway standards as a condition for receiving federal aid. About half of the fatal accidents on the interstate system are single-vehicle “run-off-the-road” accidents; with many of the cars involved striking one or more fixed objects.
In 1968, Congressman John Blatnik opened hearings on highway design defects by saying “Regardless of the reasons why a driver may leave the paved portion of a high-speed highway, roadside areas should be sufficiently clear of obstruction to give him an opportunity to regain control of his car. He and his passengers should be given a reasonable chance of survival.
These hearings need to be reopened, now that television is permitted in House of Representative hearing rooms, so that millions of Americans can see the shocking engineering hazards on our highways and learn how to spot them. Pressure from aroused citizens on the Department of Transportation and State Highway Departments will help. So will the abolition of the outmoded doctrine of sovereign immunity which shields most states from being sued by injured motorists.Safer cars remain the best overall hope for protecting motorists in crashes. But highways can significantly help, too.