Proceed with Caution: An Expert Warns America's Roads Are Unsafe at Any Speed

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

From Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road to Bruce Springsteen's State Trooper, Americans have seen freedom and romance awaiting them in their ever-expanding highways and byways. But what awaits them more and more, according to safety expert Gerald Donaldson, are road defects and a host of design flaws that are a major factor in half of the nation's auto accidents. Donaldson, director of the Highway Safety Project of the Washington-based, nonprofit Center for Auto Safety (CFAS), maintains the nation's older roads are "falling apart"—a process accelerated, he says, by truck traffic and not fully remedied by bills like the controversial Highway Revenue Act of 1982, which triggered a strike by independent truckers earlier this month. Last October Donaldson and the CFAS filed a suit to overturn a Federal Highway Administration ruling on road repair that would have allowed states to apply what Donaldson terms a mere "asphalt Band-Aid" to aging thoroughfares. The son of a New Orleans construction engineer, Donaldson, 40, received his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Virginia in 1969 and was drawn to public-interest advocacy. He and his wife, Molla, 38, a health-care associate professor at George Washington University, live in Washington, D.C. with their three children, ages 3 to 13. Between meetings with congressional staff and federal administrators, Donaldson talked about the nation's highways with PEOPLE'S Michael J. Weiss.

Did you sympathize with the independent truckers in their strike protesting the new highway tax bill?

Some drivers will probably go bankrupt because of the new taxes. But trucking fees have been too low for too long, especially considering how much pavement damage these heavy 18-wheelers cause. It's unfair to ask other highway users to subsidize truckers by allowing them to operate at a low taxation rate.

What's in it for the truckers?

Provisions in companion legislation allow them to drive longer, wider and heavier rigs on a lot more highways—older roads with narrower lanes, sharper curves and less banking. Tandem trailers—what truckers call "doubles"—will be more widely allowed. They are unstable and prone to jack-knifing. We're expecting a sharp increase in accidents involving these heavier rigs.

The American Trucking Associations maintained that pavement damage is caused by weathering of roads and a vast number of cars, not by the relatively few heavy trucks. How do you respond?

That's just wrong. Last year one study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that it takes 9,600 cars to equal the damage caused by one 80,000-pound truck operating over the same distance. The heavier trucks that are permitted under the new legislation are going to beat the roads to shreds. Although there is only a slight arithmetical increase from the present limit of 18,000 pounds per axle to the new limit of 20,000 pounds, there's a geometric increase in pavement wear—as much as 25 percent. That's because the pavement is already at its tolerance limit with 18,000 pounds. The damage will mount faster than the increased user fees can finance added repair.

What kind of shape are America's roads in overall?

Experts estimate that more than half our two million miles of paved roads have defective surfaces. In addition, non-Interstate federal-aid highways built around 50 years ago have accident-producing features like narrow lanes, sharp curves, steep hills and such roadside hazards as culverts and utility poles. The Congressional Budget Office rates two-thirds (about 1.3 million miles) of this system in fair or poor condition.

How do you account for this deterioration?

Engineers never figured on heavy use of the roads. Some minor arteries built to carry 2,000 cars a day are now carrying 10,000. Rural farm-to-market roads built for 6,000-to 8,000-pound trucks are now handling 20,000-to 50,000-pound semis.

How do weather and topography affect road condition?

In the North, the freeze-and-thaw cycle accelerates deterioration. Water percolates into the asphalt, expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. Ultimately this can collapse the road base. In the South, unstable soil is the major concern. Delta soil in Louisiana, for instance, is just a sophisticated form of tapioca pudding. As a boy, I remember seeing roads undulate in southern Louisiana because their foundations had sunk. Other roads buckle in the heat, especially those made from portland cement, which has little elasticity. In the West, engineers contend with roads built on very thin soil over a rocky base. After a dry spell, sudden torrential rains can turn the ground to mud and wash away a highway.

What region has the safest roads?

The Plains states. The roads are newer, flatter and built on semidesert, so there are fewer problems with shifting soils. A good example is the new section of Interstate 80 going west out of Lincoln, Nebr. It's wide, flat, straight and has few obstacles on the median or shoulder. There's nothing to run into.

Why is highway maintenance so bad?

State legislators have deferred upkeep. Ever since the Interstate System was launched in 1956, politicians have thrown their money into building new roads rather than maintaining old ones. No one holds a ribbon-cutting ceremony to restore an older highway.

What about the Interstates? Aren't they among the finest roads in the world?

Yes, but they're starting to show their age. Of the 41,369 miles already built, 4,000 miles need resurfacing now and another 12,000 miles have been rated "barely adequate" for 55-mph travel.

Who is supposed to pay for road maintenance?

State and local governments take care of routine roadwork, using state gas taxes or a percentage of general revenues. States used to pay for all major upkeep as well, but in 1976 they asked for—and got—a federal bailout. The problem was the feds had put up 90 percent of money for Interstates, but nothing for maintenance. So in 76, on a matching-grant basis, Uncle Sam began picking up 90 percent of the tab for major maintenance on the Interstates and 75 percent for other federal-aid highways. But a lot of state highway departments couldn't even come up with the 10 or 25 percent.

Is the 5¢-a-gallon increase in the federal gas tax enough to redeem our old roads?

No. We needed a dime, but nobody was going to propose that much. Funding for continued construction of the Interstates will be $4 billion annually for the four years covered by the Highway Revenue Act. Meanwhile, funding for the secondary system will remain at $650 million all four years—and these are the roads that are really hurting. What is needed is at least $1 billion a year for repair of these older roads.

Why are you suing the Federal Highway Administration?

Last June they issued a rule allowing states to ignore road hazards and obsolete designs on non-Interstate roads and just put fresh asphalt down to keep the cars rolling.

What's wrong with fresh asphalt?

Sometimes a little asphalt makes a road more dangerous. Motorists will often travel 15 miles an hour faster when an old road is resurfaced, and accidents increase because the narrow lanes, tricky curves and obstacles are still there.

What solution are you seeking?

In our suit, we're asking the court to rescind the rule and make the agency come up with a uniform set of national standards that will require states to restore their older highways in a manner that will assure substantial improvements in both safety and services.

What is the ideal design for a modern highway?

It should have limited access, with 12-foot-wide multiple lanes, 10-foot-wide shoulders, a gradually sloping run-off-the-road area at least 20 feet wide, and a median at least 50 feet wide. Bridge piers and roadside fixtures would be limited and far from the road. There should be complete cloverleaf interchanges and lane-controlled occupancy—some for cars and some for trucks. The only drawback is that a flat, wide highway can be incredibly boring, and some drivers lose concentration over the long haul.

Are federal inspections needed to make sure the states make repairs?

The Federal Highway Administration is supposed to inspect all federal-aid highways annually, but many inspections are random and incomplete. Until this year, if a state was found negligent in maintaining its roads, all federal funds were supposed to be withheld. But that never happened. Because the sanction was so severe, it was a paper tiger. That's one reason the law was amended last year to withhold only a portion of the funds. Now we'll see if the penalty is enforced.

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