Ky. could save lives but it might displease highway contractors

Roadside memorial cross on Russell Cave Road in Bourbon County
Roadside memorial cross on Russell Cave Road in Bourbon County Photo provided

In the current discussion about the opioid crisis in Kentucky, insufficient attention has been paid to the role of automotive accident injuries in painkiller addiction. A 2006 study in Pain Physician found that patients with pain as a consequence of road traffic injury were the most likely to abuse opioids.

If we focus on making Kentucky highways safer, we can prevent some addiction.

Driving an automobile is by far the most dangerous thing Kentuckians do on a daily basis. We have bad roads, and we still don’t have mandatory drivers’ education in high school.

About 1 out of 70 Kentuckians will be killed in a traffic accident. About 1 out of 150 residents was involved in an automobile injury accident in 2015.

According to the Kentucky Traffic Collision Facts report by the Kentucky Transportation Center and the Kentucky State Police, there were 23,803 non-fatal injury collisions in Kentucky in 2015, and 834 deaths in 2016.

Our fatality rate (18.8 deaths per 100,000 population) is the sixth-highest rate in the country, twice as high as Ohio or Pennsylvania, and three times as high as Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Why?

Look around the Bluegrass and you will see some obvious traffic hazards. On eastbound Ironworks Pike east of Newtown Pike, there is an 8-inch drop-off at the edge of the pavement. How many times have we read about an accident where a driver drops off the side of the road into a rut, over-corrects and then swerves into oncoming traffic or a tree?

Our highway signage needs improvement. As others have pointed out, many serious traffic accidents occur at curves in a highway following a long straight section. For example: “Dead man’s curve” on Greenwich Pike (Ky. 1876) about one-quarter mile from its juncture with Ky. 353 (Russell Cave Road.)

There is only one chevron sign left standing at the curve, because all of the others have apparently been knocked over by cars which failed to make the curve. A guardrail between the curve and a plank fence is so battered it is barely standing.

If there are so many accidents here that the signage can’t last for more than a few months, perhaps it is time to consider alternate traffic control solutions, such as flashing lights or rumble strips.

We need a change of attitude in favor of injury prevention by our public officials. Much of KDOT’s attention seems to be focused on big highway earth-moving projects, instead of fixing deadly rural roads. Earth-moving is expensive, and it also causes big traffic jams. See I-75 in Rockcastle County. But these projects are financially rewarding for the big road-building contractors who pour big money into campaigns.

To help address the opioid crisis, we should be fixing the incredibly dangerous rural highways in Eastern Kentucky, or U.S. 62 between Versailles and Midway, or the “Highway to Heaven,” Russell Cave beyond the I-75 overpass.

KDOT District 7 steadfastly refuses to lower the speed limit on Russell Cave from 55 mph to 45 mph, despite more than a dozen fatalities.

Some officials like to blame most of Kentucky’s auto accidents on driver error, but the real error is traffic engineers posting narrow, shoulder-less, tree-lined highways with a speed limit of 55 mph.

KDOT is complacent, stubborn and retrograde — and part of the opioid problem.

Dave Cooper of Lexington is a community activist. Reach him at davecooper928@yahoo.com.