The Sign of the Cross

I was driving in Montana yesterday, down highway 85 (returning home from the excellent Driving Assessment conference), about as psychically far from Brooklyn as you can get (though there was actually plenty of traffic, due to some federal-stimulus-driven construction work-zones), on a stretch that, as a sign informed me, was part of a 26-mile “Accident Reduction Project.”

Montana, as I mention in Traffic, has the highest per-mile-driven fatal crash rate in the country, and it’s not hard to see why: Many high-speed undivided two-lane roads (and every vehicle seemed to be an incredibly large pickup truck), one of the country’s highest drinking-and-driving rates (Montana was one of the last state to pass a no-open-container law), extreme weather conditions (hinted at by the little turn-outs with “Chain Up” signs), dark roads, moose and other animals, long emergency response times — the list goes on. Driving yesterday, I wondered about the actual contribution of the incredible scenery itself (I imagined a highway patrolman coding a crash, ‘Improper Lookout Due to Stunning Natural Rock Formation’) to unsafe driving; more than once, gazing at the nearby rushing rapids, I was brought back to reality by the center-line rumble strips, a feature I haven’t seen (or felt) that much elsewhere.

A prevalent feature of that staggeringly expansive landscape are the white memorial crosses, which I saw often at rather severe curves, but also on quite innocuous stretches of road. Montana is one of the few states that actively permits, indeed encourages (since the program’s inception, in 1953), the placing of these crosses (by local American Legion posts). As this source notes:

The program is intended as a highway safety not a memorial program. Still, many families place wreaths or other decorations on the white crosses, which may be considered a memorial to a loved one lost in an accident. Obstruction of the white marker with these decorations defeats the purpose of the safety program. Attaching them below the cross on the metal pole is acceptable. The white markers serve as a public service message, reminding drivers to “Please Drive Carefully.” They are a sobering reminder of a fatal traffic accident, a place where a human being lost his/her life.

The American Legion’s Fatality Markers can be found within the borders of Montana, along state and federal highways, secondary and forest service roads and even city streets. One white marker is erected for each traffic fatality. The markers are made of 4″ metal and painted white. They are mounted on metal poles painted red. Each white marker is 12″ wide and 16″ long. The white marker is supposed to be 4 to 5 feet above the ground to improve visibility and aid in road maintenance.

I don’t know what effect, if any, the crosses actually have on road safety in the state, or how such a thing could reasonably be measured, but in general it seems better to me to announce the hazard than to not announce it. But I was struck by this note:

Not all highway fatalities are marked. Not all of the 134 American Legion Posts in Montana
currently participate in the program. Some areas of Montana do not have a local American Legion Post. Because of these two reasons many stretches of Montana highways do not have fatality markers where a fatal accident has occurred. Also, when a highway is reconstructed and corrects what may have been the cause of the fatality, all markers are removed.

I was curious about that last bit. Granted, I saw some crosses at high curves that were guard-rail deficient, to say the least. But the given the complexity of crashes, the multiple chains of causation in which environmental factors are often only one determinant, does engineering itself eliminate the future risk of another fatality? I can see doing this in the case where a victim’s family might request its removal, but I wonder if removing the crosses (and I’m not sure where this has been done, or how many times) sends the wrong message — e.g., this curve has been reduced, signed, etc., so we don’t need to worry about the human factors of speed, impairment, etc.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 at 10:40 am and is filed under Traffic Culture, Traffic Enforcement, Traffic Engineering, Traffic safety, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



June 2009

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