Safety activist proposes European cable barrier system
By Polly Keary, Editor
Fred Walser is a man who loves highways.
So while on a recent vacation to Sweden, when other people might have been fascinated by mountains or ancient towns, Walser, chair of the U.S. 2 Highway Safety Coalition, couldn’t quit marveling at the roads.
Narrow and two-lane, passing through mountainous areas and regularly inundated with heavy snow, they had much in common with U.S. 2. But they have innovative safety features that U.S. 2 lacks.
Now Fred Walser is on a mission to get the Washington legislature to consider implementation of the solar pavement marker lights, advanced reflective paint, and most importantly, the narrow but effective centerline cable barriers that have reduced crossover crashes to nearly nil on Swedish highways.
“It looks like a runway”
“Boy, do they have a neat road system,” said Walser, a two inch-thick sheaf of photos and reports in a folder in his hand. “They are way ahead of us.”
Walser went to Sweden when his wife, former Monroe mayor Donnetta Walser, learned she had cousins there.
While he was there, he noticed that cable barriers, while scrapped as ineffective and even dangerous on I-5 years ago, were ubiquitous in Sweden.
And when driving at night, he was impressed that down the center lines, between the posts of the cable barriers, were brilliant orange solar LED lights that charged all day and shone all night.
And the white paint on the sides of the road was far more reflective than that on U.S. highways.
“At night it looks like a runway,” he said.
He did some investigating and found out how the Swedish cable barriers work.
Sweden has, since the 1990s, adopted a road system called a “2+1.” That means that the road is mostly two-lane, but has passing lanes on alternating sides of the road. Down the center of those roads are high-tension cable barriers.
The cable barriers are posts that are set into brackets. Unlike older cable barriers that flexed as much as 12 feet when struck by a speeding semi, these flex eight feet at the most.
And when there is an accident, police can pull the posts out of the brackets and re-route traffic, so that accidents never cause the road to be closed.
Furthermore, unlike jersey barriers, they can be used on a sloped road, where pooling water might otherwise create a hazard.
“I have all kinds of reports assessing the value of high tension cable barriers and they are all pretty much in agreement. They work,” said Walser.
Indeed, studies do seem to show that the cable barriers have at least been quite successful in Sweden.
“[The 2+1 system] was estimated to eliminate 20 to 50 percent of all severe link accidents. The design was soon judged to be a major success,” reads a 2005 U.S. Transportation Research Board Business Office report.
And according to a Canadian study, cable barriers are not only effective at improving safety, they are cost-effective, too.
“This initial assessment of flexible barrier use predicts that major savings of up to 90 percent in death and serious injury can be achieved, with no evidence of increased road trauma for motorcyclists,” it reads. “An estimate of the economic value of these savings is several times larger than the investment costs.”
Cable barriers are something of an anathema in Washington after the highly-publicized failure of a median cable barrier on I-5 near Marysville.
Walser, a former Washington State Trooper, says he is very familiar with the shortcomings of that system.
He was on the scene at two fatal accidents on that stretch of road, he said. But it was a poor spot for barriers, he argued. They were placed down the center of a wide grassy median which was valley-shaped to control water runoff. Cars leaving the roadway at 70 miles per hour could sail right over them, Walser said.
“It was poorly engineered,” he said.
Now he is setting out to sell the legislature on the Swedish model.
Taking it to Olympia
Along with the Safety Coalition’s paid lobbyist, at the end of November he made the rounds of committee meetings and he says he was fairly well-received.
We had a chance to go around and talk to all the folks on the transportation committee, and we left copies of this information, and they all seemed very interested,” he said.
But Jamie Holter, communications manager for the Washington Department of Transportation, interjected a note of caution.
Anything going into the center line will require the highway to be widened to some extent, she said.
“You have to have some distance; you don’t want someone driving right up against the cable barrier,” she said. “It’s not as easy and as cheap as everybody thinks.”
In some places, widening the road by a couple of feet might not be too costly, she noted. But when there’s a river on one side of the road and a rock cut on the other, such as some places above Gold Bar, the cost can skyrocket.
Also, a pilot project, in which a particular solar LED maker offered the state a financial incentive to try their product on a stretch of state route near Darrington, was not a success, she said.
“We just don’t get much sun,” she said.
But, she noted, jersey barriers, which some in government have proposed, are much wider than cable barriers, and therefore would require yet more expensive widening.
Ultimately, she said, if the legislature wishes it, WSDOT will be delighted to look at any potentially good idea.
“If there is something in Sweden that is working differently, we’d love to learn about it,” she said. “We look at the conditions under which it was working in Sweden, and we ask, ‘Would that work on Highway 2?’ And then if we think so, we might take a little bit of money and do a pilot project.”