Designing Better Highways in the Rural Areas

Friday night, my mother and myself was stuck in traffic on Interstate 93 North as many people were kicking off the summer break (unofficially) for the Memorial Day weekend.

Well for about thirty five minutes from Exit 7 on Interstate 293 to Bow we were crawling till we took the beaten path of Interstate 89. No we didn’t go to Vermont.

However near Exit 6, my mother noticed a bus veering right to head off that exit till suddenly a headlight was heading towards us on the fast line. My mother was about to respect the state law to move over for emergency vehicles or big vehicles that need space. But if she did that we would be in the news. Ironically the engagement was to go to a discussion on Enhanced 9-1-1- for my state at the New Hampshire Telephone Museum an exit further north. The other ironic thing was we didn’t call.

And this was on a holiday weekend too to make it worse.

This happens a lot in these highways. Not so much where I live, all the overpasses are almost connecting roads to get you on these highways. Once upon a time byways were two lane roads, one going in each direction. Then highways came along and it was ether a) a wider byway, or a byway with a slow lane for truckers on hills or c) two separate  roads, each going its own direction (normally north/south, east/west).

Then the Interstate Highway System was introduced in the fifties during the Eisenhower administration. However, this was Federally funded project that helped states build larger highways that they didn’t have already. In many cases the US Highways run in tandem with the Interstates.

The problem with highways, especially in the Interstates is the ability to go on as others go off especially if it’s coming off the same direction. For an example, if we were going on I-89 North, we could in theory have another driver passing by us coming from the north as we are going on too.

This is the most dangerous. There are many “wrong way deaths” especially in Massachusetts, where their highways are in more populated areas. Many of the onramps abut to off ramps, and in recent years. In fact the new NBC-O&O in Boston did one of their first investigative stories on this subject.

This is mostly a design issue and the age of the highways and the inability for highways to be scaled out, and the rare amount of people that can’t tell a low density highway (like NH 101 in Milford or the old 101 past Raymond), a higher density highway like the Everett Turnpike, or an even higher one (like the new Interstate 93).

In order to solve the problem, you can’t just throw money and turn rural towns with heavy traffic once or twice a year to look like suburbs with traffic lights and intersections. Such options should be:

  • Using “Wrong Way” signs help, but this will not fix the problem.
  • Radically change the overpass or underpass with four lane access to each side of the highway with traffic lights (highly expensive, may cut some trees or property, upset the locals, etc.)
  • Do evolutionary change. A straightaway should only be used to get on and a curved road to get off. Most often in the rural areas straightaways are used entirely. Remember it’s only getting on you need straight roads to get up to speed, you need to slow down once you get off, a straightaway doesn’t work in that theory.
  • To get back on, you should go left or right, then take another left or right instead of going straight. Because it’s so easy to get on the “wrong way” even if there is so much signage (or in the case of Massachusetts, there is painted text on the road.) Most often in the rural areas the off ramp and on ramp for the respected direction of the multi lane highway are next to each other.
  • Design languages in future Federal funds should require states to follow such recommendations. Instead of telling states to get smaller road signs with no all-uppercase street signs for the underpasses you’re crossing under, they should focus more of the safety aspect.

Wrong way wrecks or worse that end in deaths are hard to solve, other than driver awareness. But when you factor the very young and the elderly these situations of keeping your eye on the right dotted line ensuring you are going the right direction can put a lot of stress. I’m talking about the southern exit of the Pheasant Lane Mall in Tyngsboro entering or exiting US Route 3.

At this point this responsibility lies on the state authorities because it’s their responsibility to ensure that they are protecting people in the most way they can possible; because it shouldn’t be normal to have cars going in the other direction on a road that only goes one way.