Study: Low-Cost Road Changes Can Reduce Crashes on Urban Roads

August 4, 2005

Making low-cost changes to busy roadways in cities, such as adding left hand turn signals and extending the length of merger lanes, can reduce the number of crashes, according to a study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Institute studied the changes to a busy thoroughfare in Fairfax County, Va., outside Washington, D.C., and found that the alterations reduced crashes.

Many of these urban roads “weren’t built to accommodate today’s heavy traffic. They’ve evolved as traffic has increased, and they haven’t always evolved in the best way to enhance safety and ensure a smooth flow of traffic,” said Richard Retting, a senior transportation engineer at the Institute.

The majority of traffic fatalities happen on rural roads, but safety experts say urban arteries remain dangerous. About 8,000 traffic fatalities and more than 1 million injuries occur annually on urban roads, the report said.

The government reported in 2003 that the New York metropolitan area had the largest number of traffic fatalities with nearly 1,200, followed by Los Angeles with 1,021. About 70 percent of the fatalities occurred on urban streets in the two cities.

The Institute’s findings came on the heels of a government report release this week that found traffic deaths declined on U.S. highways for a second straight year, with 42,636 fatalities in 2004, a reduction of 248 from the previous year.

Many roads in metropolitan areas have been plagued by intensifying gridlock, increasing frustrations among drivers and fueling the potential for crashes. A report in May by the Texas Transportation Institute found that Omaha, Colorado Springs, Colo., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and New Haven, Conn., were among 51 metropolitan areas where drivers are delayed at least 20 hours a year. The study found only five metropolitan areas in 1982.

Retting and others studied traffic on Leesburg Pike, identifying six problem intersections that have been the site of crashes.

In one intersection, many westbound motorists found it difficult to make a left hand turn across several lanes of heavy traffic driving at a speed limit of 45 mph. The Virginia Department of Transportation installed a left turn signal for motorists and adjusted the timing of the traffic signal to improve traffic flow.

The intersection had an average of 4.6 left turn crashes every year before the changes. In the 21/2 years since the changes, there haven’t been any crashes at the intersection, the study found.

Transportation officials extended a merge lane at another section of Leesburg Pike, which helped reduced the line of cars waiting to merge. The study said rear-end crashes were reduced from an average of 8.2 a year to less than one.

Ryan Hall, a Virginia DOT spokesman, said the cost varies for these changes, but implementing a left turn signal can cost from $30,000 to $50,000. Extending a merger lane can be completed for about $10,000 without any land acquisition, he said.

Adding a left hand turn lane can be costlier, depending on whether the state needs to acquire land. The extra lane can cost between $150,000 to $250,000 with a right of way acquisition, he said.

Retting said every site is different and needs to be evaluated on an individual basis.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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