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. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “The Sign of the Cross”

  1. PaulD Says:

    White crosses are a big thing in Western Australia, you can find them everywhere from city highways to the middle of nowhere (and we have a LOT of nowhere.) The thing that always strikes me about them is how many are NOT on dangerous sections of road. I’ve seen 3km straight sections of road with a cluster of crosses half way along.

    The human factors are nearly always significant, even if it’s just an inability to recognise that the road engineering is inadequate/dangerous/faulty.

  2. Bryan Willman Says:

    Well, one very difficult human factor is the unwillingness or inability to consider events or consequences even a few minutes into the future.

    I now think this explains a lot of crime – “what did they think would happen?” is answered by “they didn’t think at all…”

    I conjecture that this explains part of drunk driving. People don’t plan to get “drunk”, don’t plan to drive drunk, and when drunk have poor judgement about their driving. So all sorts of “don’t drive drunk warnings” may have no effect because they don’t intend to do it, perhaps don’t think they are doing it, or only realize it when they’re already in route. (Are there studies or other data on this?)

  3. aaron Says:

    Yes. Restructuring is key in reducing fatalities. Restructuring safety improvements are often wrongly attributied to speed reduction efforts done at the same time. There is little evidence (any?) that speed reduction efforts improve safety.

    Changing key spots to “Open Grade” material in 2006 in CA reduced accidents from 12 annually to 3-5.

  4. aaron Says:

    It’s in your post from the other day. The same company that does the light and speed posting coordination primarily does “Traffic Calming”.

    Of all their “effectiveness studies”, only one actually mention changes in accident rates. It also suggests that their efforts aren’t responsible for the improvements.


    Date: February 2, 2007

    To: Humboldt Area

    Humboldt Area

    File No.: 125.11998


    In 2006, there was a significant reduction of collisions at three locations in the Humboldt Area. The reduction of collisions was associated with engineering changes made by the California Department of Transportation (Cal Trans). These changes include changing the roadway surface from conventional asphalt/concrete pavement to “opengrade” asphalt/concrete pavement and posting additional sings, some of which are radar activated signs that indicate the speed of approaching motorists. Two of these areas are located on US 101; the third area is located on SR-299.

    The north most area is located on US 101, between mile post markers 101 HUM 124.71 and 125.98; a stretch of highway frequently referred to as “the curves just south of the by-pass, north of the old fish hatchery.” In 2004, there were nine reported collisions in this area. In 2005, there were eight reported collisions in this area. Cal Trans completed a safety project, which included a change to “Open Grade” roadway safety surface, and the addition of radar activated signs in December 2005. In 2006, there were 5 reported collisions in this area.

    The second area on US 101 is located between milepost markers 101 HUM 109.42 and 112.53; an area commonly called “the Big Lagoon Curves.” In 2004, there were 12 reported collisions in this area. In 2005, there were also 12 reported collisions in this area. Cal Trans completed a safety project in this area that included radar activated signs and a change to “open grade” roadway surface in December of 2005. In 2006, there were 5 reported collisions in this area.

    The third area is located on SR-299 on the east slope of Lord Ellis Summit, between milepost markers 299 HUM 19.05 and 20.67. Though the curves are not as tight as those on US 101 are, the roadway grade is steep. Both in 2004 and 2005 there were 12 reported collisions in this area. Though no comprehensive safety project was conducted in this area, Cal Trans conducted a number of incidental improvements and repairs. This area does not have radar activated signs. In 2006 there were three reported collisions in this area.

  5. Brian Ogilvie Says:

    Just a comment on center-line rumble strips: I’ve encountered them on two-lane highways in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I thought they were a great idea on such long, straight, lonely stretches of road.

  6. Thomas Kent Says:

    Tom, did you also notice that the rumble strips on the left (next to the median) are continuous, and the strips next to the shoulder are intermittent?

    -Tom in Montana

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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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