Op-Ed

State behind the curve on highway signs that could save lives

What if you realized there was a pattern associated with numerous deaths on Kentucky's highways, a pattern with available remedies, a pattern that was not mentioned in connection with the investigation of numerous fatal crashes.

Would you feel a responsibility to try to do something about it? What if those responsible for safety on Kentucky's highways resisted?

It's common for news accounts of crashes associated with curves to say investigating authorities cited excessive speed or alcohol, or both, as contributing factors.

About 25 percent of fatal crashes occur at or near curves, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That equates to about 200 lives lost prematurely in Kentucky in 2009; nationally the figure is 8,000.

The public seems to have adopted the idea that if someone crashes in a curve, they were going too fast. No one, it seems, asks why.

There is an unrecognized contributing factor regarding many of those crashes — little or no warning signage. Many people die (and perhaps many people are injured) just because they are surprised by the "severity" of a curve for which there is little or no warning.

Warning signage is no panacea, of course. Drivers obviously need to drive responsibly. Effective warning signage can help them do so. In some cases warning signage serves as "first notice" of a hazardous circumstance. In other instances, warning signage is a reminder or "wake up." In yet other instances warning signage will be ignored. Surely it will be recognized, however, that a driver with warning of a dangerous curve is more likely to be able to safely negotiate the curve than one who has no warning.

Many curves on the highways (commonly referred to in engineering terms as horizontal curves) involve a change in the direction of the roadway, the degree of which a motorist cannot see as the curve is approached.

Upon examining a number of curves in Kentucky where repeated crashes, often fatal ones, have occurred, it was obvious in each case that there was minimal or no warning signage.

With effective advance warning, drivers might lower their speed as they approach a curve or otherwise have what might be termed "control preparedness" that might enable them to safely negotiate a curve.

It seems difficult, at least in Kentucky, to obtain the support of highway transportation engineers to implement such concepts.

A case in point is a curve where West High Street veers onto West Maxwell Street (U.S. 60) near Cross Street, in Lexington. A review of news accounts indicates nine people have died in the same 50-foot or so area since 1982. The news accounts cite investigating authorities as indicating excessive speed was believed to have been a contributing factor.

The police, in preparing crash reports, are not tasked with evaluating whether the absence of effective warning signage might have been a contributing factor in a crash. Warning signage on our highways is the purview of engineers.

I have written three letters since a fatality at this location on March 28 asking that effective warning signage be provided in advance of the curve, and within the curve.

Engineers of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet apparently conducted field reviews related to the curve. On April 28, several "chevrons" (black pointers on a yellow background) were placed within the curve. No warning signage was placed in advance of the curve.

The photo accompanying this text shows the approach or "tangent" preceding the curve on West Maxwell Street after signs were added on April 28.

No warning signage was placed in advance of the curve that disappears from sight around the corner of the beige building that can be seen on the right in the photo.

When warning signage is withheld until very close to a hazard, the chances of a crash are heightened. There simply is not time for what is termed "perception-response time" On April 28, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet added a speed limit sign near the curve but placed it after the curve, where it can't be seen by drivers on the approach.

Why would the Transportation Cabinet not want to install warning signage along the approach to a curve where at least nine people have died?

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