In one sense, it is easy to see why many consider highways the most dangerous stretches of our roadways; this is where vehicles travel at the top legal speed (and sometimes a little over it) and accidents on the highway are sure to involve vehicles moving at such speeds. This is why highway crashes are usually the fatal ones, sometimes involving many more than only one or two vehicles. However, in another sense, the highways are not the most dangerous.
For one thing, highways involve traffic going down a single lane, in a single direction and at a more or less uniform speed. These roads are also plenty wide and there will be central barriers installed in order to prevent head on collisions. Venture into the towns and cities though and suddenly traffic is moving in many more directions and speeds, the roads are often narrower and things like pedestrians, traffic lights, and one-way streets become something the driver has to think about carefully. And while the average speed of traffic might be slower, there certainly isn’t an absence of fast-moving cars and the potential for accidents.
These accidents are more prevalent at the places in towns and cities where vehicles going in different directions meet each other. In practice, this means at intersections. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) report that 40% of all crashes happen at intersections, 50% of all crashes dubbed “serious” (including the fatal ones) happen at intersections and, indeed, a full 20% of total traffic fatalities occur here too.
The Danger of Intersections
So, what are the unique dangers to drivers posed at intersections? Valtir, a company dealing in, among other things, highway cable barriers, note that there really isn’t one answer to this question. Furthermore, for modern vehicles and modern traffic norms, intersections pose dangers in numerous and diverse ways. It’s no surprise really that intersections are not products of the modern traffic age; they are simply the locations in urban areas where two main roads intersect each other. This means they largely date from the times before modern traffic; there were intersections even when it was only horses and carts traveling through them.
There isn’t enough space to list all of them, but a simple consideration of what an intersection actually is can help you appreciate the dangers. At a standard two-lane intersection, there are no less than 32 possible conflicts points at which one vehicle could potentially crash into another – and that doesn’t even take into account the pedestrians that often need to cross intersections!
More than this though, drivers at intersections need to maneuver their cars in pretty complex ways, either coming to a complete halt, slowing down and indicating to other drivers that they can go, or interpreting an often-complex system of traffic signs. There is no getting away from it – intersections pose a danger.
The Rotary Alternative
The main alternative to intersections, which is more common in places like the UK rather than here, are rotaries, or roundabouts as they are known abroad. To return to the figure quoted above, a roundabout reduces the number of potential conflict points from thirty-two to eight. Vehicles also never need to stop, slow down or do anything except gracefully take their turn off into their desired road.
Of course, roundabouts need to be regulated by traffic rules and signage too. There is also usually a speed limit. If they do have a drawback, it lies in the fact that they may not be feasible to build in particularly built-up urban areas where the intersections are tighter.
However, wherever they are feasible (and they usually are), roundabouts are much safer and reduce accidents and fatalities. In that sense, they should be a no-brainer.