In the early 1960s, traffic engineers in New Jersey conducted a series of crash tests with a concrete barrier. The result was a 32″ wall with two curved surfaces that has since become the ubiquitous Jersey barrier.
It is impossible to calculate the exact number of lives saved by the installation of the Jersey barrier along American freeways and highways. Suffice to say, the number is great.
And yet in hindsight, an opportunity for an additional “save” was squandered on Monday along a well-traveled stretch of I-5 between Tacoma and Olympia.
For a thus far unexplained reason, the driver of a pickup truck heading southbound on I-5 near Mounts Road crossed the median and struck two vehicles, including a tractor trailer driven by an Ohio man who was later pronounced dead at the scene.
In addition to the human toll, the resulting collision required extensive medical aid to tend to the injured, firefighters to douse the fiery heaps of crunched vehicles and state troopers to shut down the freeway and conduct a thorough and painstaking investigation. The hefty costs also include the work performed by the medical examiner and the emergency room staff, tow truck drivers and the highway cleanup crew, crash investigators and a potential prosecution.
Add to that the lost revenue associated with drivers stuck in nine miles of stalled traffic, and the actual tally for the pickup driver’s errant crossing approaches large numbers.
However, if we accept that such things do happen, that drivers are, after all, faulty human beings, then the only recourse is to find ways to mitigate the destruction.
That is precisely why the Jersey barrier – noticably missing from the above picture – was developed.
There must be some reason to explain the absence of a barrier to protect vehicles closing at a combined speed of nearly 150 mph. Perhaps it is the median’s wide berth (about 30 feet) along much of the interstate. Perhaps it is the expense of connecting concrete walls down the center of hundreds of miles of roadway.
Those possibilities are easy to process. Judging by Monday’s collision (along with numerous other examples), the human capacity for error far exceeds the mere 30 feet separating oncoming freeway traffic. As for the cost, a quick Google search of Jersey barriers reveals a price tag of $1,000 for a 12′ concrete section weighing just over 5,000 pounds. Not factoring any discounts, that would be about $450,000 for a mile long section of road.
While that is no small sum, the price for doing nothing can also be great.
Prevention may not be an easy item to sell during a tough economy, but it certainly will help the next time two vehicles carrying fragile human beings approach each other at freeway speeds. It may be the only thing that keeps the occupants alive.