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.