Bad Highway Design, Conditions Contribute to Half of Fatal Auto Crashes in U.S.

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

If it is your fate to die in an auto accident this holiday weekend, the odds are you'll hit an ill-positioned bridge, tree or pole, or encounter some other highway hazard, according to a study commissioned by an industry group that advocates for boosting spending on road construction.

Bad highway design and conditions are a factor in more than half the fatal crashes in the United States, contributing to more deaths than speeding, drunken driving or failure to use seat belts, according to Ted R. Miller, who co-wrote the 18-month study released yesterday.

Road-related conditions were a factor in 22,000 fatalities and cost $217.5 billion each year, the study concludes. By comparison, Miller said, similar crashes where alcohol was a factor cost $130 billion, speeding cost $97 billion and failure to wear a seat belt caused losses of $60 billion.

Almost 42,000 people die in traffic accidents per year.

The report was commissioned by the Transportation Construction Coalition, which represents trade groups and unions with a vested interest in funding for road construction.

It recommends several improvements that would bring roads more closely into compliance with current standards. They include adding and widening shoulders, widening or replacing narrow bridges, realigning crooked roads, requiring breakaway signposts and light poles, using more brightly colored pavement markings, installing signs that are easier to read and decipher, and adding rumble strips and guardrails.

If the nation's most modern superhighways are exemplars of magnificent design, the study says, its back roads are not. They twist around the contours of the land, rather than plow through them; they wear thin more rapidly than repair budgets allow; and they are straddled by all manner of obstacles with which a vehicle should not tangle.

"A lot of this is a problem of old roads," said Miller, who heads the nonprofit Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton. "A road that was built in horse-and-buggy days had lots of trees for shade. A horse and buggy didn't need wide bridges, so we built narrow ones."

The interstate system, the study says, accounts for just 45,000 miles of the nation's 3.9 million road miles.

Miller, who has worked under federal contract to compile data for the U.S. Transportation Department and the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission, said he meshed accident statistics from three national databases with medical bills and insurance payouts to piece together the factors and costs associated with crashes.

The study attempts to make the case for investment in highway improvements. It is being released as billions from the $787 billion stimulus package are being spent on road projects and just before a House Transportation Committee debate, scheduled for this month, on a $500 billion transportation bill. The Obama administration has pushed for an 18-month delay on the bill while it deals with more pressing issues, but there is bipartisan support in the House to approve the six-year spending plan.

"Safety is our top priority, and we agree that repairing and improving our highways will help save lives," said Cathy St. Denis, spokeswoman for the Federal Highway Administration. "With close to $16 billion of economic recovery funds going to highway projects across the country, we are confident this will significantly improve road safety."

"The battle on this bill is shaping up on how you fund it," said Matthew Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a member of the coalition that funded the study.

Jeanneret called the report "somewhat groundbreaking."

"These are tangible things that can be done to save 22,000 lives a year," he said. "Imagine if a plane with 200 people on board was crashing every three days. Something would be done about it."

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