When you really think about it, driving is scary. We simply have to trust complete strangers to safely, calmly, and effectively pilot massive and potentially flammable vehicles, all while moving at high speeds which can climb into the eighties or even nineties. Drivers drink, fall asleep, and look at their text messages, and studies have assessed that human error is responsible for up to 93% of all auto accidents. While it’s good to be vigilant, the preoccupation with human dangers tends to make us forget about risk factors which may be present with the roads themselves. In the first section of this blog series, we’ll examine a few of the most dangerous roads in America to try and determine why these particular stretches of asphalt are causing so many crashes.
The vast majority of car accidents are caused by human error (a study cites numbers as high as 93%), but substandard road design can also contribute to deadly crashes, rollovers, and head-on collisions. Whether blind curves, sudden speed shifts, or excessive congestion is to blame, the end result is the same: injury, pain, and death.
AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is Real, and it’s in Alabama
AC/DC had a smash hit with 1979’s “Highway to Hell.” Little did they know their famous song had a real-life counterpart in Alabama.
Highway 431 is so dangerous that it’s even attracted the notice of the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO publishes a Global Status Report on Road Safety every year, and part of the study calls for a “fear factor” rating for roads. This “fear factor” rating reflects variables like visibility, speed, lanes, and other potential hazards. In the 2013 report, Highway 431 garnered a four out of ten, ranking number four for deadliest roads in America.
What makes the “Highway to Hell” so bad? Drivers report bad visibility, abrupt changes in the number of lanes, and rampant speeding. One particular alignment of Highway 431, which ran from Pittsview to the border of Barbour County, was so dangerous it was eventually bypassed in 2008 — but not before claiming 31 lives from 1992 to 2006.
“The Highway of Death” and “Suicide 6” in Connecticut
I-95 meanders along nearly 2,000 miles of land, stretching from southern Florida to northern Maine. In Connecticut, I-95 covers about 112 miles, and has earned a few nicknames over the years. One is “the Connecticut Turnpike.”
Another is “the Highway of Death.”
The worst section of the Highway of Death is an eight mile stretch around the town of Norwalk in Connecticut’s southwestern finger. This tiny area alone has accounted for a staggering 10% of all CT Turnpike auto accidents, causing a total of 735 crashes compared to the 600-crash average for a region of comparable size and congestion.
Indeed, congestion has been cited as one of the key risk factors to the Highway of Death. Connecticut is one of America’s smallest states: only Delaware and Rhode Island are smaller. But at the same time, it has one of the nation’s highest population densities, ranking fourth place. Southern Connecticut, which packs in commuters to New York and large urban centers like Stamford and New Haven, experiences some of the worst congestion. Connecticut is also a hilly state, and the peaks, drops, and curves don’t exactly aid clear visibility.
From 2004 to 2008, the CT portion of I-95 claimed 85 lives — nearly one for every mile of road.
Fortunately, construction is now underway to alleviate traffic density by expanding the area around Exits 14 and 15 in Norwalk, where car accidents are most heavily concentrated.
Connecticut’s stretch of I-95 isn’t the only roadway the Nutmeg State should be worried about improving. U.S. Route 6 — also known as “Suicide 6” — runs horizontally across the state, spanning about 117 miles east to west with the worst section stretching from Bolton Notch to Willimantic.
In 1998, NBC’s Dateline reported on Suicide 6, after causing 69 accidents in 1997 alone. Risk factors include too many turns and speed limit changes, along with too few shoulders. According to the state’s Department of Transportation, the span between Bolton Notch and Willimantic accounts for over 80% of all Route 6 accidents.
CALIFORNIA NIGHTMARE: “BLOOD ALLEY” VS. “BLOOD HIGHWAY”
Blood Highway: State Route 12
Unfortunately, roads which fail to accommodate basic safety concerns are all across the country — even in sunny, care-free California. In fact, California is home to several of America’s most dangerous routes, including Route 138 and Route 12.
Or, as they’re respectively nicknamed, “Blood Alley” and “Blood Highway.”
“Blood Highway” runs across over 140 miles of terrain, but the stretch from Lodi to Rio Vista is the main culprit behind State Route 12’s alter ego. Officials estimate more than 70 people have lost their lives traveling this segment of asphalt. An unusually high number of blind spots in conjunction with heavy traffic from truckers en route to Interstate 5 both contribute to the high number of fatalities.
Carrie Bowen, director of the California Department of Transportation’s District 10, says Route 12 began its life as a minor rural road, and new developments are needed to help make it safer for dramatically increased usage by motorists. “Thousands of motorists use this on a daily basis,” says Bowen.
Blood Alley: State Route 138
State Route 138 actually has multiple nicknames, including “Pearblossom Highway,” and the far less appealing “Blood Alley” and “Death Trap Highway.” (It’s also been referred to as “Death Road” in a morbid nod to this terrifying mountain pass in Bolivia, which some estimate causes hundreds of fatalities each year.)
State Route 138 is relatively small, spanning only about 105 roughly horizontal miles. But for a short highway, 138 packs in an alarming number of accidents. The L.A. Times reports that during a single five-year period prior to 2000, “Blood Alley” experienced 56 fatalities and another 875 injuries, including 410 serious injuries. While data analysis revealed that other highways in L.A. County had higher accident rates, accidents on Route 138 were most likely to result in death.
With so many crashes plaguing Death Trap Highway, it seems preposterous to chalk the phenomenon up to sheer coincidence. One factor which contributes to Route 138’s high fatality rate is its numerous serpentine twists — never a good combination with the high speeds of highway driving. Though widening construction is underway, attempts to pass using 138’s two lanes have led to head-on collisions. Narrow shoulders, which are also slated for construction to improve safety, don’t exactly mitigate the other hazards.
A quick visit to the website Trip Advisor gives an insight into how the motorists who actually use 138 feel. “Drive at sunset, but carefully,” one review suggests. “This road can be very dangerous!” Another review warns against coming for the sunset view, cautioning, “HWY 138 is notorius [sic] for the number of fatal collisions along its path. It is a very bad choice to drive at dusk or dawn and to be avoided at night if possible.” Yet another review is titled “Be HYPER-Aware on this dangerous highway!” The review says, “Dangerous — Avoid this if you have other choices.”
NO GUARDRAILS, STEEP INCLINES, AND SHARP TURNS ON COLORADO’S MOUNTAIN-HUGGING 550
U.S. Route 550 in Colorado is known as the “Million Dollar Highway” — but just because its nickname is friendlier than others we’ve encountered so far, doesn’t mean it’s any less of a threat to unwary motorists. While Route 550 only covers about 25 miles of Colorado territory, poor design makes it a terrifying hazard for even careful drivers.
Colorado is known for its massive mountains. While those peaks and crags seem scenic from afar, it’s a very different story when you’re trying to navigate their twists and turns by vehicle. Route 550 meanders through the San Juan Mountains’ Red Mountain Pass, carrying drivers at an elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level — with no safety guardrails to speak of.
The rationale behind the lack of safety rails is that their absence facilitates snow removal in the winter. This may be true; but the trade-off is the constant peril of plunging down a mountain cliff. 550’s light use of shoulders only aggravates this hazard.
In order to avoid driving over a mountain while traveling on 550, motorists also have to contend with sharp hairpin turns, sharp inclines, and skinny lanes which fail to provide any sort of redundancy or cushion in the event of an accident. Writer Peter Koch described the “Million Dollar Highway” as “steep, twisting, and completely unforgiving of driver error.”
In 2013, USA Today called 550 one of the “World’s Most Dangerous Roads.” From 1990 to 2010, there were 302 accidents resulting in nine crash fatalities.
While Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Nancy Shanks assures drivers that 550 is actually “below average for accidents,” it’s hard to say this mountain-hugging pass looks very safe.
When highway engineers and city planners fail to design and maintain safe roads, innocent drivers can be left to pay the ultimate price. If you or someone you love was injured due to negligent road maintenance, you may have a strong personal injury claim. To schedule a free, confidential legal consultation with an experienced attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.